New Study Identifies Loud Conversations Among Passengers as the Most Likely Distraction for Newly Licensed Adolescent Drivers

Cutting-edge research used in-vehicle cameras to measure behavior of teen drivers and passengers

(CHAPEL HILL, N.C.) -- Adolescent drivers are often distracted by technology while they're driving, but loud conversations and horseplay between passengers appear more likely to result in a dangerous incident.

According to researchers at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center's Center for the Study of Young Drivers, adolescent drivers are six times more likely to be involved in an incident requiring an evasive maneuver to avoid a crash when passengers in the vehicle are engaged in loud conversation, and nearly three times more likely to be involved in an incident when passengers are engaged in horseplay. The study, published in the May 2014 Supplement to the Journal of Adolescent Health, is one of the first to use in-vehicle cameras to observe teen driver and passenger behavior in real-time.

"Forty three states currently restrict newly licensed drivers from having more than one young passenger in their vehicle," said Robert Foss, senior research scientist at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, and director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers. "The results of this study illustrate the importance of such restrictions, which increase the safety of drivers, their passengers and others on the road by reducing the potential chaos that novice drivers experience."

The study showed many other behaviors commonly associated with driver distraction, which occur more frequently than passenger-related distractions, were not strongly related to the occurrence of serious incidents. These include electronic device use, adjusting vehicle controls, and eating or drinking.

"Behaviors that drivers can directly control -- for example, deciding when or whether to send a text or adjust the temperature -- don't seem to lead to dangerous incidents as often as conditions in the vehicle that increase a driver's mental workload," said Foss.

Distracted behaviors varied considerably across drivers and -- contrary to popular public belief -- electronic device use was not widespread; it was generally concentrated in only a subset of the drivers. In general, adolescents engaged in distracted behaviors at rates similar to those found for adults in previous studies.

In addition to these findings, the article reports:

  • Only one-third of adolescent driver trips involved any passengers and fewer than seven percent involved more than a single young passenger.
  • Electronic device use and several other distracted driver behaviors were most common when young drivers carried no passengers.
  • Female drivers were twice as likely as males to use an electronic device and more than three times as likely to be observed holding a phone to their ear.
  • Drivers looked away from the roadway for reasons unrelated to driving in nearly half of all recorded driving clips, but the duration of these glances were generally brief.

This exploratory study is one of the first to use in-vehicle technology to record the behavior of adolescent drivers in actual driving situations. Using video recorders with two lenses -- one facing the roadway and the other into the vehicle -- researchers were able to measure potentially distracted behaviors more accurately than in previous studies, which have relied on observation from outside vehicles or driver self-reports of distracted behaviors.

"While technology has created more potential distractions for drivers, it has also enabled better measurement by researchers," said Foss. "Until recently, there was no way to measure driver distraction with the precision necessary for scientifically sound research. Installation of cameras in the cars of study participants allows researchers to directly observe driver behavior far more precisely and validly than ever before."

This study was funded in part by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and through donations to the Center for the Study of Young Drivers.

The full article is available on the Journal of Adolescent Health website: www.jahonline.org.

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 About the Center for the Study of Young Drivers
The Center for the Study of Young Drivers (CSYD) was established within the UNC Highway Safety Research Center in 2005 to provide a continuing focus on studying and improving the safety of young drivers. The Center’s goal is to develop a fundamental understanding of the multitude of factors that contribute to the high crash rate among young drivers, drawing on the many intellectual resources of the UNC community. This understanding is critical for the development of effective policies and programs to reduce travel-related deaths and injuries among teens. For more information, visit www.csyd.unc.edu.

About UNC Highway Safety Research Center
The mission of the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center (HSRC) is to improve the safety, sustainability and efficiency of all surface transportation modes through a balanced, interdisciplinary program of research, evaluation and information dissemination. For more than 45 years, HSRC has been a leading research institute that has helped shape the field of transportation safety. For more information, visit www.hsrc.unc.edu.

Media Contacts

Caroline Dickson
919.962.5835
dickson@hsrc.unc.edu

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