Teen drivers are easily distracted. (State Farm Insurance photo)
Teen drivers are easily distracted. (State Farm Insurance photo)

Teenagers act their age when they climb into an automobile, and that poses a greater risk than talking on cell phones or text messaging, according to a study released this month by a University of North Carolina research center.

Teenage drivers are six times more likely to have to take an evasive action to avoid a crash when their passengers are talking loudly, and three times more likely to narrowly avoid an accident if their passengers are engaged in horseplay, said UNC’s Center for the Study of Young Drivers.

The District and 47 states restrict the number of passengers that novice drivers may transport in the months after they receive a license. The District bars teens from carrying passengers for six months and limits to two the number they can carry until they turn 18. Maryland bans passengers under 18 for five months. Virginia allows no more than one passenger under age 21 for 12 months.

“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,” said Robert Foss, the center’s director. 

The study found that other distractions — use of electronics, drinking or eating and adjusting vehicle controls — were not strongly related to the occurrence of serious incidents. 

“Behaviors that drivers can directly control – for example, deciding when or whether to send a text or adjust the temperature – don’t seem to lead to dangerous incidents as often as conditions in the vehicle that increase a driver’s mental workload,” said Foss.

The report said that teenagers generally are no more likely to engage in distracting behaviors than their parents. Use of electronic devices and entertaining other distractions is more common when young drivers carry no passengers. Young women were found twice as likely as young men to use electronic devices and three times more likely to hold a phone to their ear.

The study used two cameras placed in cars, one facing the road ahead and the other inside the vehicle. The center said that gave researchers the ability to measure distracted behaviors more accurately than earlier studies that relied on observation from outside vehicles or driver self-reports of distracted behaviors.

“While technology has created more potential distractions for drivers, it has also enabled better measurement by researchers,” said Foss. “Until recently, there was no way to measure driver distraction with the precision necessary for scientifically sound research. Installation of cameras in the cars of study participants allows researchers to directly observe driver behavior far more precisely and validly than ever before.”