Federal research indicates roughly 11 percent of all highway deaths are the result of distracted driving. But a new study confirms what has long been feared, with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety concluding that nearly 6 out of 10 moderate to severe teen crashes are the result of driver distraction.
The figure is significantly higher than had been estimated previously, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluding distraction played a role in only 14 percent of teen crashes.
"The in-depth analysis provides indisputable evidence that teen drivers are distracted in a much greater percentage of crashes than we previously realized," said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA safety arm.
The study was based on the analysis of the final six seconds of data recorded just before a crash taken from 1,700 in-vehicle event recorders. It found that distraction was involved in 58 percent of teen crashes overall, including 89 percent of road-departure accidents and 76 percent of the rear-end 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 Kissinger.
The crash recorders indicated that the teen drivers involved in accidents had their eyes off the road for an average 4.1 seconds during the final six seconds before a crash. Auto industry studies have generally concluded that a driver should not have their eyes off the road for more than two to three seconds. The study also found that in half of the rear-end crashes the teen drivers failed to attempt to brake or steer their way to safety.
The new report actually might understate the significance of the findings because teens also have a higher rate of crashes than other driving groups. Car crashes are the single-largest cause of death among teens, according to federal data.
Federal reports show 963,000 drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 were involved in police-reported crashes in 2013, the latest year for which data are available. Those accidents resulted in 2,865 deaths and 383,000 injuries.
Though authorities have often pointed to the use of cellphones—whether to make a call or to text—the study found there are a number of other factors that can distract a teen driver. The most common, responsible for 15 percent of crashes, involved interacting with one or more passengers. Other major causes blamed for teen distracted driving include:
• Cellphone use: 12 percent of crashes.
• Looking at something inside the vehicle: 10 percent.
• Looking at something outside the vehicle: 9 percent.
• Singing or moving to music: 8 percent.
• Grooming: 6 percent.
• Reaching for an object in the vehicle: 6 percent.
"It is troubling that passengers and cellphones were the most common forms of distraction given that these factors can increase crash risks for teen drivers," said AAA Chicago spokesperson Beth Mosher.
The AAA has long supported restrictions on the use of cellphones by a driver of any age, and the vast majority of states now bar texting while limiting cellphone use to hands-free calling. But enforcement varies widely.
Most states now have some form of graduated licensing in place, meanwhile. In many, teen drivers must have an adult onboard, or may not be allowed to drive with other teens, at least during the initial period after obtaining a license.