Young drivers talking on smartphones more likely to run red lights, drive intoxicated

LIMERICK, Ireland — Using a hand-held phone while driving is a major safety hazard at any age. For young and inexperienced drivers however, it can lead to even worse decisions behind the wheel. Researchers at Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software, find novice drivers who talk or text while driving are more likely to ignore red lights and drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The study finds just the act of using a hand-held phone while driving has a connection to higher odds of speeding, driving drunk, driving without a license, and cutting off other drivers.

Researchers surveyed 700 German Young Novice Drivers (YNDs) with an average age of 21 during this project. The team notes that although this data technically only pertains to Germany, the behavior of these drivers is comparable to other young motorists around the globe.

“The data also indicates a moderately-strong effect between talking on a hand-held phone and speeding more than 20 km/h over the speed limit in urban areas. Speeding in built-up areas is moderately correlated with reading notifications, sending texts, or voice messages,” says Dr. Darren Shannon of Lero and the University of Limerick in a media release.

“There is a strong association between those who speak on their phone and those who engage in risky activity with potentially fatal consequences, such as intoxicated driving, ignoring red traffic lights, and driving with more passengers than seatbelts,” the researcher adds.

According to the World Health Organization, car crashes are the number one cause of death among individuals between 15 and 29 years-old. Smartphones and distracted driving in general tend to play a major role in many of these accidents.

Some drivers try to rationalize distracted driving

The research team says these results point to a larger cultural problem among Germany’s, and the world’s, young drivers. Researchers say many young people in the study deliberately choose to break driving laws; keeping their phones out of sight while on the road.

“These attitudes have implications for the safety of other road users. Our work allows for road safety authorities to accurately target information campaigns designed for younger drivers. Targeted campaigns should increase awareness that all smartphone-related activities can significantly increase the risk of a crash or near-crash event,” explains Lero’s Dr. Martin Mullins. “We don’t just see policymakers as responsible. Carmakers are making their cars seem like a place of entertainment. This may have induced a false perception that behaviors like changing the music while driving are perceived as safe, and should instead engage in efforts to reduce this type of behavior.”

Many surveyed drivers told researchers they only use their phones while driving to play music. Study authors ponder if young people think using their phone for music somehow makes the entire process safer.

“This could be attributed to the fact that drivers are allowed to use the car stereo while driving, which implies that changing or searching for music is safe. Nevertheless, changing music while driving, like reading or writing text messages, can cause cognitive, visual and physical distraction and significantly increase the risk for road traffic collisions,” concludes Lero researcher and PhD student Tim Jannusch.

“Dr. Shannon said policymakers could use their results for public information policy development, and to tailor financial penalties for those engaging in smartphone behavior linked to dangerous driving. “Our findings can also be used in a Usage-based Insurance (UBI) context to financially incentivize safer driving.”

The study is published in Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour.

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John Anderer

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