Even experienced drivers face a dangerously high
risk of getting into an accident while manipulating a cellphone.
Those are some of the findings from a newly released study that
monitored 151 licensed U.S. drivers — 42 novices and 109 experienced
drivers — to log what they were doing just before an accident or a
The most controversial element of the study is expected to be
another finding: The act of just talking on a cellphone didn't
increase the risk of a crash, regardless of a driver's experience.
Instead, it turns out the things that allow a driver to talk — such
as dialing or reaching to get to a ringing phone — posed the real
And those hazards were even greater than the risk posed by texting
or using the Internet while driving.
"At least for novice teenage drivers, secondary tasks that take the
eyes off the road pose a very high risk for crash," co-author Bruce
Simons-Morton, a senior investigator at the National Institute of
Child Health and Human Development told Reuters Health in a
"It's true for adults too, but they seem to be better than novices
at dividing their attention. They attend to tasks and look back up
at the roadway without taking a long period of time," he said.
"Talking on a cellphone does not require the driver to look away
from the road ahead," they said. "However, our findings should not
be interpreted to suggest that there is no risk associated with this
activity, since previous simulation and test-track research has
shown that talking on a cellphone reduces attention to visible road
hazards and degrades driving performance."
"It worries me that people will read this and proclaim that talking
and driving is now safe," Dr. Amy Ship of Beth Israel Deaconess
Medical Center and Harvard Medical School told Reuters Health by
phone. She was not connected with the research.
Ship said she was surprised to see the risk of talking was so low,
but asserted that more evidence is needed, especially when other
studies have shown that just the act of talking on the phone is
hazardous. "It's 280 million people talking and driving, so the risk
is still huge, and it's an avoidable risk."
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine,
confirms the danger of texting while driving, which is banned in
many places. But it only looked at texting among novice drivers,
whose actions were recorded for 18 months during 2006 to 2008.
The team, led by Shelia Klauer of the Virgina Tech Transportation
Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia, did not gauge the texting risk
for the experienced drivers because those data were collected for 12
months for each driver in 2003 and 2004, before texting became so
The car of each driver was equipped with forward radar, a GPS, a
lane tracker, a device that measures acceleration and four cameras,
two of which showed what the driver was doing. Sudden movements of
the car helped to indicate crashes and near-crashes.
None of the crashes during the study involved serious injury.
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"This is the first study where we actually saw what they did to look
at objective measures of distraction," said Simons-Morton.
In all, there were 685 crashes and near-crashes for which the
driver shared the blame. The findings clearly showed that maturity
For experienced drivers, reaching for an object, or eating or
drinking a nonalcoholic beverage while driving did not increase the
risk of a crash — at least not enough to be statistically
Yet dialing a cellphone was clearly a problem for the veterans.
Their odds of a crash or near-crash jumped 2.5-fold as they tried to
make a call.
But for novices who had been driving for 19 months or less, a lot of
distracting activities interfered with their abilities.
The chance of having an accident or near-accident was 8.3 times
higher while dialing a cellphone, 8.0 times greater while reaching
for an object other than a cellphone, 7.1 times higher while just
reaching for a cellphone, 3.9 times greater while sending or
receiving a text message and 3.0 times greater when eating while
Only drinking a nonalcoholic beverage, adjusting controls for the
radio or heating system or talking on the cellphone didn't increase
the risk for the novices.
Although young adults ages 15 to 20 years old account for 6.4
percent of all U.S. drivers, they are responsible for 10 percent of
all motor vehicle traffic deaths and 14 percent of all crashes that
result in injury.
About 9 percent of all drivers use their phone while on the road and
their risk of a crash is four times higher than other drivers.
"It's clear that if we're going to target drivers, novice drivers
and younger drivers are at highest risk for a whole variety of
reason," Ship said.
"They're at higher risk independent of distracted driving, they're
inexperienced and they have no sense of the risks associated with
anything they're doing, on the road or otherwise. You take that
trifecta and apply that to something that weighs two tons and moves
quickly down the highway, it's a recipe for disaster."
England Journal of Medicine, online Jan. 1, 2014
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