The behavior of passengers – not the use of electronic devices – may be a more important factor when it comes to the safety of teenage drivers, according to new research.
The study found that teen drivers were six times more likely to be involved in situations that prompted them to take evasive action to avoid a wreck when their passengers were talking loudly, and three times more likely when passengers were horsing around. In contrast, driver actions – such as using a cell phone, eating or reaching for items – were less likely to cause serious incidents.
The study, published by the Journal of Adolescent Health, was one of the first to use cameras to record young drivers in real situations. Previous studies relied on witnesses in other vehicles or self-reporting by drivers.
Researchers mounted cameras in vehicles driven by 52 high school students ages 16 to 18, nearly 70% of whom were girls. One camera recorded the oncoming road and traffic, while another recorded what was happening inside the vehicle. Recordings were obtained over a six-month period.
Robert Foss, a senior research scientist at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, said 43 U.S. states prohibit new drivers from carrying more than one young passenger at a time.
“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,” Foss said in a statement.
The findings are likely to be of interest to law enforcement agencies and public safety officials. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among U.S. teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2010, for example, roughly 2,700 youngsters between the ages of 16 and 19 were killed and 282,000 were injured in crashes.
Previous studies have shown that the presence of teenage passengers increases the risk of crashes for unsupervised teen drivers, according to the CDC. The risk increases as the number of teens in the vehicle increases.
Although the small sample size means further research is needed, Foss’ findings appear to indicate that “cognitive overload” is more of a factor for young drivers than distracted behaviors such as eating, drinking or using mobile devices.
Other findings of the May 2014 study: