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US Drivers Distracted 10 Percent of Time on Road

Texting is just one of many distractions that can result in crashes or near crashes, particularly for new drivers. (Image credit: Texting while driving image via <a href=""target="_blank" >Shutterstock</a> )

Drivers in the United States are distracted about 10 percent of the time that they are on the road, according to a new study.

A team of researchers based at the National Institutes of Health and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University used video recorders and in-vehicle sensors to measure the activity of about 150 individuals while they drove in regions of Washington, D.C., and southwestern Virginia. The team then analyzed footage taken over the course of 12 to 18 months to determine the extent to which distracting activities — including texting, eating, talking on the phone, adjusting the car's temperature or radio controls, and looking at something on the side of the road — related to rates of crashes or near crashes.

The researchers found that new drivers — those who had received their license within the previous three weeks — were far more likely to suffer the consequences resulting from distractions compared with more experienced drivers. [The 10 Most Disruptive Technologies]

"Anything that takes a driver's eyes off the road can be dangerous," study co-author Bruce Simons-Morton, a researcher at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said in a statement. "But our study shows these distracting practices are especially risky for novice drivers, who haven't developed sound safety judgment behind the wheel."

Crashes or near crashes were eight times more likely for new drivers while they were dialing a phone, seven to eight times more likely while they were reaching for an object, four times more likely while they were texting and three times more likely while they were eating, compared with more experienced drivers, according to the study results.

The researchers also found that experienced drivers were more than twice as likely to crash while dialing a cellphone than while not dialing a cellphone, but were not significantly disadvantaged by other distractions.

The researchers noted that the action of talking on the phone did not increase the risk of crashes or near crashes in either experienced or inexperienced drivers. Rather, because talking on the phone entails other distracting activities — including reaching for the phone and dialing — it should still be considered a risky behavior, the researchers said.

Past studies have found that drivers ages 15 to 20 account for about 6 percent of all drivers on the road in the United States but account for 11 percent of fatal accidents and 14 percent of injury-causing crashes. The team believes this new study helps to confirm distractions' major role in the heightened incidence of crashes in this young age group.

"As new forms of technology increasingly are available in cars, it's important that drivers don't feel compelled to answer every incoming call or text," said Simons-Morton. "For young drivers' safety, parents can model this habit when they are at the wheel, and also let their children know that they should wait until the vehicle is stopped before taking a call."

The study is detailed today (Jan. 2) in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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Laura Poppick
Laura Poppick
Laura Poppick is a contributing writer for Live Science, with a focus on earth and environmental news. Laura has a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Bachelor of Science degree in geology from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Laura has a good eye for finding fossils in unlikely places, will pull over to examine sedimentary layers in highway roadcuts, and has gone swimming in the Arctic Ocean.