As America continues to assess the impact of combining two favorite pastimes -- driving and cell phone use -- a new study from Virginia Tech shows that a range of phone related activities is putting younger motorists at risk.
But dialing while driving -- a task that grows more uncommon with the proliferation of voice-command phones and cars -- also represents a huge safety risk for more experienced drivers, as well.
Older Drivers More Disciplined
Details of the research were published in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 4. The team of researchers led by Sheila G. Klauer of Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute reports that there were 31 crashes and 136 near-crashes among the novice drivers studied, and 42 crashes and 476 near-crashes among the experienced drivers.
The younger drivers were prone to a range of dangerous habits such as dialing, texting, reaching for an object, eating or looking at roadside objects. The seasoned drivers behaved more responsibly, but still were prone to the temptation to dial their phones while driving.
In all cases, the common denominator was the driver shifting attention away from the front view while in motion, even momentarily.
"The secondary tasks associated with the risk of a crash or near-crash all required the driver to look away from the road ahead," the researchers wrote in their discussion of the study. The prevalence of high-risk performance of secondary tasks was similar overall in the two groups, although it increased among young drivers over the 18-month study period, possibly because of increased confidence in driving over time."
The researchers noted that the risks taken by younger drivers have led to implementation of a graduated licensing system in all 50 U.S. states, whereby drivers must have clean records to pass from a permit to a restricted license, and then on to full driver's license.
"Our finding of the association of several secondary tasks with a significantly increased risk of a crash or near-crash among young drivers provides support for policies limiting the performance of these tasks through graduated licensing requirements or other policy initiatives," the study said.
In an interview, Virginia Tech's Klauer acknowledged that driving and phone habits have changed today because of the increasing availability of voice commands and calls routed through the vehicle dashboard speakers. But she noted that smartphones continue to provide new levels of distraction, such as incoming text messages, social media notifications, etc.
Old Habits Die Hard