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Teen drivers are very cautious behind the wheel when they first start driving, but as time passes they begin to engage in potentially risky behaviors such as talking on cellphones, eating and talking to other passengers.
That's according to a new study out Thursday by researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which has conducted some of the nation's most important research on distracted driving, and the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development.
"Novice drivers are more likely to engage in high-risk secondary tasks more frequently over time as they become more comfortable with driving," said Charlie Klauer, group leader for teen risk and injury prevention at the institute's Center for Vulnerable Road User Safety. "The increasingly high rates of secondary task engagement among newly licensed drivers in our study are worrisome as this appears to be an important contributing factor to crashes or near-crashes."
Klauer is first author of an article on her group's research that appears in The New England Journal of Medicine.
The researchers compared the results of a one-year, 100-car study with drivers ages 18-72 with an average of 20 years of experience, and the results from an 18-month study of 42 teens who had drivers' licenses for less than three weeks when the study began.
Participants in both studies drove vehicles equipped with data acquisition systems developed at Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute, including a minimum of four cameras and sensors that collected continuous video and driving performance data during the studies. Researchers watched the video of the drivers and noted any distracting behavior before or during a crash or near-crash.
The researchers found that during the first six months behind the wheel, novice teen drivers engaged in secondary tasks less frequently than experienced drivers. But they matched experienced drivers between months seven and 15, and were engaging in the distracting behaviors more frequently than experienced drivers during months 16-18. The young drivers logged a two-fold increase in risky distractions during the last three months of the study.
One of their findings: The teens were engaging in distracting behaviors beyond just using their cellphones.
"Many states have adopted graduated driver licensing provisions that limit cellphone use," said Tom Dingus, director of the institute and a co-author of the paper. "However, it is not the only risky behavior for novices." He added that talking on a cellphone doesn't increase crash risk for either novice or experienced drivers, while dialing increases the risk for both groups.
Bruce Simons-Morton, a senior investigator with the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, said the study is the first to measure how much multi-tasking distracts novice drivers and how that compares to more experienced drivers.
Among the findings from institute researchers: Engaging in tasks associated with the use of hand-held cellphones and other portable devices increases the risk of crashing by three times; sending or receiving a text message takes a driver's eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent of driving the length of a football field while blindfolded at 55 mph; behind the wheel use of hands-free cellphones is not substantially safer than hand-held use.
Klauer says she hopes the new study will remind parents of teen drivers to continue monitoring their children's behind-the-wheel behavior as they gain experience.