Perspective from Motao Zhu, MD, MS, PhD
March 06, 2019
3 min read

Car crash risk increases sevenfold when teens reach for objects

Perspective from Motao Zhu, MD, MS, PhD
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A recent NIH study showed that teenagers increase their risk for crashing sevenfold by reaching for objects while driving. The study also found that teenagers who manually use their phone to dial, text or browse the web while driving doubled their crash risk.

Researchers followed 82 newly licensed teenaged drivers (average age, 16.48 years) in Virginia for 1 year. They equipped their vehicles with computers to track kinematics and assess speed, a GPS to determine mileage, and video cameras to watch the driver’s face, hands and body positioning. Six-second video segments before each crash were evaluated to determine the severity, type and contributing factors of the crash. The researchers compared these video segments with randomly sampled videos in which no crash occurred — establishing a baseline of normal driving behavior.

At the end of the 1-year study period, researchers identified 71 crashes among the 82 drivers. There were 43 drivers who were not in a crash, 25 involved in one crash and 14 involved two or more crashes (median, 3; range, 2-8). Drivers were performing secondary tasks in 51% of crashes and in 56% of baseline segments. The most common secondary tasks in both scenarios were interacting with passengers (21%), talking or signing without a passenger present (17%) and attending to stimuli outside the vehicle (10%).

Teen texting and driving 
Although cellphone use was not the leading cause of motor vehicle crashes among American teenagers, the use of phones while driving increased the risk for crashes. The researchers wrote that every second the driver's eyes were off the road, regardless of the type of distraction, the risk for a crash increased by 28%.
Source: CDC

Although they were not the most common secondary tasks, reaching for objects (OR = 6.9, 95% CI = 2.6, 18.6) and manual cellphone use (OR = 2.7, 95% CI = 1.1, 6.8) were both associated with increases in crash risk compared with the baseline. For every second the driver’s eyes were off the road, the risk for crashing increased by 28%, regardless of the type of distraction, the researchers said.

This follows another recent study that found nearly 40% of teens in the United States text while driving.

“During their first year of independent driving, teens often engage in many different activities behind the wheel that could lead to a crash,” Pnina Gershon, PhD, lead author of the study, said in a news release. “Teenage drivers may benefit from interventions that monitor and alert them during frequent or prolonged inattention on the road.” by Erin Michael


Gershon P, et al. Am J Prev Med. 2019;doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2018.11.024.

Li L, et al. J Adolesc Health. 2018;doi:10.1016/j.jadolhealth.2018.06.010.

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.