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Distractions may increase teen drivers’ crash risk sevenfold: study

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Washington — Teen drivers are up to seven times more likely to be involved in a crash if they’re distracted by smartphones or other items, results of a recent National Institutes of Health study show.

Following 82 newly licensed teen drivers in Virginia for one year, researchers placed cameras and GPS technology on the participants’ vehicles to monitor the drivers’ environment and activity. Among the sample, 25 were involved in a crash and 14 had multiple crashes during the study.

Six-second video clips revealed the teens’ behaviors moments before the crashes. Reaching for or handling something such as food or makeup increased their crash risk sevenfold. Manually dialing, texting or browsing the internet on their cellphones doubled their crash risk.

For every second the drivers’ eyes were off the road, their crash risk jumped 28 percent, regardless of the type of distraction.

Other “secondary tasks” the teens participated in behind the wheel included moving to music, attending to personal hygiene, and eating or drinking. These behaviors, however, were not as likely to increase crash risk compared with visual distractions related to using cellphones and reaching for objects.

“During their first year of independent driving, teens often engage in many different activities behind the wheel that could lead to a crash,” study lead author Pnina Gershon said in a Feb. 25 press release.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death and disability among drivers age 15 to 20, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The researchers recommend, but do not specify, technological interventions to ensure a teen driver’s eyes are on the road at all times and engagement with other tasks is minimized. They also say distracting secondary tasks should be targeted in teen driver education.

“Teenage drivers may benefit from interventions that monitor and alert them during frequent or prolonged inattention to the road,” Gershon said in the release.

The study was published online Feb. 21 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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