Driving And Multitasking Don’t Mix, Especially For Teens

A new study published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed what general wisdom already knows: driving and multitasking do not mix. This was especially the case when it came to teen drivers.

According to CBS News, the 15-to-20-year-old age group accounts for six percent of all drivers but 10 percent of traffic deaths and 14 percent of police-reported crashes with injuries.


In the new study, a research team from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute installed video cameras, GPS, gadgets to measure speed and acceleration, lane trackers, and a number of other sensors in the vehicles of 42 newly licensed drivers 16 or 17 years old, as well as 109 adults with an average of 20 years behind the wheel.

The risk of a near-miss or a crash increased by seven times when younger drivers were dialing or reaching for their cellphones. The risks increased fourfold if these drivers were sending or receiving text messages. Risks were also greater if the younger drivers were reaching for something other than a phone, eating, or looking at an object on the roadside.

How More Experienced Drivers Fared

Somewhat surprisingly, adult drivers with two decades or more experience behind the wheel only showed an increase in risk when they were dialing a cellphone. However, the study began before the rise of texting while driving, so results may not accurately reflect the current risk level that older drivers, who choose to text-and-drive, may experience.

David Strayer, a University of Utah scientist, took issue with one additional finding from the study — that merely talking on the phone didn’t pose a dangerous distraction — saying that it was “completely at odds with what we found.”

Strayer told CBS News that the study methods and tools may have underestimated risks “because video cameras capture wandering eyes but can’t measure cognitive distraction.”

“You don’t swerve so much when you’re talking on a cellphone; you just might run through a red light,” and sensors would not necessarily pick up any examples of bad driving if a crash didn’t occur, he added.

Why Adults Fare Better With Multitasking

To explain why adults fared better than teens at multitasking behind the wheel, researchers believe their results boil down to one major reason: experience.

Bruce Simons-Morton, a behavioral scientist with the National Institutes of Health and a coauthor of the study, explains: “You increase the difficulty of a task until you make an error … It seems like a very natural thing but still it’s very dangerous, because good driving ability and safety judgment develops over a very long period of time.”

So while teens may be pros at things like texting and talking on the phone, they are yet to demonstrate the experience and good judgment that it takes to assess risky situations and adjust their behaviors accordingly.

“A lot of teenagers are used to talking on the phone and texting before they learn to drive,” Simons-Morton said. “And when they start driving, they bring these things right into the vehicle.”

While 2013 numbers are yet to be available from distraction.gov, the stats from 2011 and 2012 show an increase in the amount of injuries related to motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver.

In 2012, it was estimated that 421,000 people had to receive medical attention as the result of distracted driving compared to 387,000 in 2011.

In Summary

While according to the new study, talking on a phone may not be as dangerous as originally believed, reaching for the phone, dialing numbers, and sending text messages while behind the wheel, are still some of the most dangerous things that you can do regardless of age group. While teens show a greater propensity for these types of accidents, the rising numbers of injuries should be a wakeup call to pay closer attention on the roadways, regardless of age.

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