You probably don't need a research scientist to tell you that young drivers are more likely to be involved in auto accidents than their older, more experienced peers -- but just in case, the New York Times reports that a team led by Virginia Tech University's Charlie Klauer has conducted a study to prove it. In the process, Klauer & Co. uncovered some interesting stats about older drivers, too.
The team studied 151 drivers, 42 of which were 16 or 17 years old and newly licensed; the remaining 109 were adults with more driving experience. Scientists used a battery of GPS sensors, cameras, and other gadgets to track what the drivers did both with and within the car. They paid particular attention to those moments when motorists looked away from the road to check their cell phones, send texts, futz with the radio, eat, drink, and so on.
Among the 42 teens, such activities significantly increased the likelihood of a crash or near-crash. Eating boosted the risk three-fold. Looking at something on the side of the road boosted it nearly four-fold. Worst of all was dialing on their phones, which increased the risk of a crash or near-crash more than eight-fold. (Interestingly, sending and receiving texts was less of a distraction than making a call, causing the likelihood of an accident to increase 3.87 times.)
The 109 adults performed much better. In fact, eating, drinking, reaching for objects, and fiddling with radio dials had no statistical impact on the grown-ups' likelihood of having an accident or even a close call.
Dialing a number on their cell phone, however? That was a different story. Making a call increased older drivers' risk of having a crash or near-crash by approximately 2.5 times. Texting and checking email might've had a similar effect, but according to the published study, "the risk associated with texting or accessing the Internet was not assessed in this population [of more experienced drivers]".
On the one hand, the results of this study are mildly encouraging. Though it paints a grim picture of younger drivers' ability to multitask, it seems that older drivers have greater capacity to stay focused behind the wheel.
On the other hand, even the more experienced drivers had problems -- lots of them. The 109 older motorists had 518 crashes and near-crashes over the course of the study, while the 42 younger drivers had significantly fewer: 167, to be exact. (And the younger drivers were studied for 18 months, while the older drivers were studied for just 12.) In other words, the more experienced drivers had an average of 4.75 accidents or close-calls each, while younger drivers had about 2.6, even though the younger drivers were observed for six months more.
Why the discrepancy? It could be the environment. The older participants lived in the Washington, D.C. area, which is home to some terrible drivers. The younger participants lived in southwestern Virginia, which is, on the whole, more rural.
Then again, the study size seems fairly small, so we're not entirely sure how these findings would hold up in a larger study conducted in more varied environments. Perhaps Klauer and his colleagues will tackle that question soon.
For a quick overview of the study and its findings, watch the video clip above.