Cell phones aren’t the only dangerous distraction teen drivers face

Research suggests that teenagers engage in many unusual and risky distractions while driving, such as grooming, doing homework and changing clothes.

Accidents involving inexperienced drivers pose a significant threat to motorists in Cranston. According to the Rhode Island Department of Health, drivers between ages 16 and 24 have the highest rate of car accident injuries and fatalities than any other drivers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that drivers between the ages of 15 and 19 have 70 percent more collision claims than any other age group. Distracted driving, which is a common behavior among younger drivers, may play a role in many of these accidents.

Rhode Island has passed laws to address some common sources of distraction, including electronic devices and young passengers. Drivers under age 18 are banned from texting and driving or using cell phones for any purpose. Additionally, drivers who have completed the learner license stage can't drive with more than one non-family passenger for 12 months. Unfortunately, even with these measures in place, other forms of distraction may remain a significant issue for Rhode Island teens.

Unaddressed distractions

An Oregon State University study recently found that teenage drivers engage in numerous distractions that most traffic laws don't address. As The Oregonian reports, researchers surveyed 1,400 teen drivers in three states. Encouragingly, the study found that self-reported rates of texting had decreased among teens; just 40 percent admitted to the behavior. However, many of the teenagers engaged in other activities that could prove just as dangerous.

According to National Public Radio, 27 percent of teens, or over one in four, reported changing clothing or shoes while driving. Teens also admitted to doing the following things while behind the wheel:

  • Applying makeup
  • Putting in contact lenses
  • Working on homework
  • Using a cellphone
  • Using GPS devices

Who is most at risk?

The risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than among any other age group. In fact, per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are nearly three times more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash

Among teen drivers, those at especially high risk for motor vehicle crashes are:

  • Males: In 2011, the motor vehicle death rate for male drivers and passengers ages 16 to 19 was almost two times that of their female counterparts.
  • Teens driving with teen passengers: The presence of teen passengers increases the crash risk of unsupervised teen drivers. This risk increases with the number of teen passengers.
  • Newly licensed teens: Crash risk is particularly high during the first months of licensure

What factors put teen drivers at risk?

  • Teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate dangerous situations or not be able to recognize hazardous situations.
  • Teens are more likely than older drivers to speed and allow shorter headways (the distance from the front of one vehicle to the front of the next). The presence of male teenage passengers increases the likelihood of this risky driving behavior.
  • Among male drivers between 15 and 20 years of age who were involved in fatal crashes in 2012, 37% were speeding at the time of the crash and 25% had been drinking.
  • Compared with other age groups, teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use. In 2013, only 55% of high school students reported they always wear seat belts when riding with someone else.
  • At all levels of blood alcohol concentration (BAC), the risk of involvement in a motor vehicle crash is greater for teens than for older drivers.
  • In 2012, 23% of drivers aged 15 to 20 involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes were drinking.
  • In a national survey conducted in 2013, 22% of teens reported that, within the previous month, they had ridden with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. Among students who drove, 10% reported having driven after drinking alcohol within the same one-month period.
  • In 2012, 71% of drivers aged 15 to 20 were killed in motor vehicle crashes after drinking and driving were not wearing a seat belt.
  • In 2012, 49% of teen deaths from motor vehicle crashes occurred between 3 p.m. and midnight and 53% occurred on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.

The study's researchers worry that current awareness programs don't sufficiently highlight the dangers of distractions that don't involve cell phones. These distractions range from the activities above to tasks such as adjusting the radio or using a GPS. Furthermore, on their own, teens may not fully recognize the dangers of these activities.

Promisingly, researchers found that a short, interactive course could help young people better understand the risks of multitasking while driving. This result suggests that more comprehensive safety campaigns and driver's education programs could help reduce distracted driving among teens. Unfortunately, at present, distraction may represent a common issue among these drivers.

Recourse after accidents

Accidents that involve these unusual distractions can be just as catastrophic as accidents that occur when drivers use cell phones. Fortunately, victims may have legal recourse, regardless of whether a distraction is explicitly illegal. Distracted driving can represent negligence if it creates a clear, unnecessary danger and causes harm to others. Negligent inattentive drivers may be liable for any injuries that passengers or people in other vehicles suffer.

Unfortunately, establishing that a driver was distracted at the time of an accident can be challenging. This is one reason that people injured in distracted driving accidents may benefit from consulting with an attorney. An attorney may be able to offer advice on documenting a claim and pursuing appropriate compensation.