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Have We Underestimated the Risk of Teen Distracted Driving Crashes?

A new study highlights how often distraction can lead to disaster for teen drivers. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that distraction played a role in approximately 6 out of 10 moderate-to-severe teen crashes, which is four times higher than previous estimates.

As we have previously discussed on this San Diego Injury Blog, motor vehicle collisions are still the leading killer of teens in America. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), traffic accidents killed 535 California young adults in 2011 alone. The number of fatalities is akin to the capacity of a 747 Jumbo Jet.

To assess the causes of teen crashes, AAA Foundation researchers examined 1,700 videos captured by in-vehicle event recorders, paying particular attention to the six seconds immediately preceding the accident. The results revealed that distraction contributed to 58 percent of all crashes studied, including 89 percent of road-departure crashes and 76 percent of rear-end crashes. The NHTSA previously estimated that distraction played a role in just 14 percent of all crashes involving teen drivers.

The study found the most common distractions include the following:

  • Interacting with one or more passengers: 15 percent of crashes
  • Cell phone use: 12 percent of crashes
  • Looking at something in the vehicle: 10 percent of crashes
  • Looking at something outside the vehicle: 9 percent of crashes
  • Singing/moving to music: 8 percent of crashes
  • Grooming: 6 percent of crashes
  • Reaching for an object: 6 percent of crashes

“Access to crash videos has allowed us to better understand the moments leading up to a vehicle impact in a way that was previously impossible,” said Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The in-depth analysis provides indisputable evidence that teen drivers are distracted in a much greater percentage of crashes than we previously realized.”

As the study also highlights, many teens are not heeding warnings about the risks of cell phone use behind the wheel. The video footage recorded prior to the teen accidents also confirms that the dangers are real — teen drivers who were using cell phones took their eyes off the road for an average of 4.1 out of the final six seconds preceding an accident.