Teen Driver Distractions and Inattention

In recent years, distracted driving has come to the forefront of public awareness, stemming in large part from the rapid growth in smartphone ownership and the availability of other portable and in-vehicle electronic devices. Although all drivers are guilty of driving while distracted on occasion, distractions are a particular concern with young drivers. Teens tend to be early adopters (and heavy users) of new technologies. Teens are also new to driving itself, so they need to devote more attention even to relatively simple driving tasks. Moreover, areas of the brain involved in forming judgments and making decisions are still developing during adolescence. For all these reasons, teens may have greater difficulty than experienced adults in managing potential distractions while driving.

Using small in-vehicle cameras, we studied how often teens engage in different types of distracted driver behaviors. Overall, behaviors such as talking on a cell phone, eating or drinking, or adjusting controls are no more common among teen drivers than adult drivers. However, these behaviors are clearly risky for teens. Teens who were using a cell phone were about twice as likely to be involved in a serious incident such as a crash or a situation requiring an evasive maneuver. Distractions created by teenage passengers appear even more problematic. When loud conversation or horseplay is occurring in a vehicle, teen drivers are three to six times more likely to be involved in a serious incident.

To reduce distractions for young drivers, most states restrict the number of teenage passengers they can carry and prohibit the use of mobile phones. We measured the short- and long-term effect of North Carolina’s ban on mobile phone use for teenage drivers through observations of more than 25,000 teen drivers. Unfortunately, the ban had little effect on teen driver cell phone use. The findings are more positive with respect to passenger restrictions. Our research shows that restrictions on carrying more than one teen passenger are strongly associated with reductions in fatal crashes among 16- and 17-year-old drivers.

Driving while drowsy is another form of inattentive driving. Research shows young drivers are much more likely than adult drivers to be involved in drowsy-driving crashes. One reason: teens don’t get as much sleep as they need, particularly on school days. We conducted a study to determine whether delaying high school start times until 8:30 a.m. or later reduces crashes among high school age drivers.

 Selected Bibliography

Foss, RD, & Goodwin, AH. (2014). Distracted driver behaviors and distracting conditions among adolescent drivers: Findings from a naturalistic study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 54:S50-S60.

Masten, SV, Foss, RD, Marshall SW. (2013). Graduated Driver Licensing Program Component Calibrations and Their Association with Fatal Crash Involvement. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 57:105–113.

Goodwin, AH, Foss, RD, Harrell, SS, & O’Brien, NP. (2012). Distracted Driving Among Newly Licensed Teen Drivers. Washington, DC: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Goodwin, AH, Foss, RD, & O’Brien, NP. (2012). The Effect of Passengers on Teen Driver Behavior. (Report No. DOT HS 811 540). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Goodwin, AH, O’Brien, NP, & Foss, RD. (2012). Effect of North Carolina’s restriction on teenage driver cell phone use two years after implementation. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 48:363-367.

O’Brien, NP, Goodwin, AH, & Foss, RD. (2010). Talking and texting among teenage drivers: A glass half empty or half full? Traffic Injury Prevention, 11:549-554.

Foss RD, Goodwin, AH, McCartt AT & Hellinga LA (2008). Short-term effects of a teenage driver cell phone restriction. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 41:419-24.