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Driven to Distraction: Which is Worse - Inexperience, Mobile Phones or Kids?

using phone behind wheels

Most of us know that reaching for our cell phone whilst behind the wheel increases the risk of an accident substantially, but a new US study suggests that for an inexperienced driver, the crash-risk could go up by 700%.

Published by the New England Journal of Medicine, the study harnessed cameras, accelerometers, GPS devices and a range of other sensors in order to collect information about 42 new drivers aged 16 and 17, and 167 older drivers with more experience.

Among the types of behaviour analysed were mobile phone use, reaching for items in the car, sending SMSs, using the stereo and other dashboard controls, and eating and drinking.

Eating was a big risk for the newly licensed drivers, nearly tripling the accident probability. Texting or looking at something on the side of the road quadrupled the risk, while making a call topped the list, increasing the risk of an accident eight-fold.

Overall, 10 per cent of time driving was spent looking at something other than the road ahead.

The lead author of the findings, Charlie Klauer, a research scientist at Virginia Tech University, said, “Kids need to have their eyes forward. To add any other distraction into this is really increasing the risk.”

The Kids Aren’t Doing Alright

However, "kids" – if we understand the less American meaning of the word – may themselves be one of the biggest distractions, according to a recent Australian study.

The Monash University Accident Research Centre in Melbourne analysed 92 journeys by 12 families, and found that children were 12 times more distracting than using a mobile phone.

Parents with kids on board spent an average of three minutes and 22 seconds with their eyes not on the road during a 16 minute trip, the study found.

Among the types of distractions identified, looking at a child in the rear-view mirror came out on top (76.4 per cent), while talking to a child came second (16 per cent). Handing a child food or drink (seven per cent) was followed by playing with a child (one per cent).

But for those who don't have children (or who have particularly well-behaved, non-distracting children), it seems that gadgets are the biggest distraction while behind the wheel.

children in cars

48% of UK Motorists Admit To Being Distracted By Mobile Phones Whilst Driving

A recent UK study by Zurich Insurance revealed that 84 per cent of British drivers believe that mobile phones, iPods, satnavs and DVD players increase the risk of an accident.

As in Singapore, using a mobile behind the wheel without a handsfree set is illegal in the UK, and yet 48 per cent of British motorists admit to being distracted by calls or texts on the road. 22 per cent say they have checked social media channels while driving.

83% of Singaporeans Admit Illegal Mobile Phone Use Behind Wheel

In Singapore, a Samsung-commissioned study revealed that 83 per cent of responding drivers admitted to using a mobile phone illegally behind the wheel. GPS or map applications were the prime reasons for using mobile phones, followed by checking mobile screens and texting. Despite these high figures, 95 per cent of those surveyed said they were aware of the illegality of mobile phone use.

Higher Car Insurance and Unnecessary Danger

For an activity that can nearly always be done before or after a car journey, using a mobile phone behind the wheel carries an unnecessary risk, especially since it can lead to stressful and dangerous accidents, higher car insurance premiums – and of course punishment under law.

Does Technology Hold the Key?

But do gadgets themselves offer the solution to the dangers of using mobiles behind the wheel? Samsung, for example, has developed a Drive Safe mode for its mobile devices, which helps drivers keep their attention on the road. Does such a system present an answer? Or does more education – particularly for new drivers – offer the solution? Then again, do bigger penalties and more rigorous enforcement hold the key? As ever, leave your thoughts below...

Further Reading:

Distracted Drivers and New Drivers in Perilous Mix (NYTimes)

Children in cars 'more distracting than mobiles' (Telegraph)

Drivers distracted by technology (Telegraph)

Survey on road safety finds over 80 percent of Singapore drivers admit to using mobile phones illegally while driving (Samsung)