By Gene Emery
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - If you're a novice driver, dialing a phone is more dangerous than retrieving text messages, and reaching for an object while driving is more likely to produce an accident than eating behind the wheel.
Even experienced drivers face a dangerously-high risk of getting into an accident while manipulating a cell phone.
Those are some of the findings from a newly-released study that monitored 151 licensed U.S. drivers - 42 novices and 109 experienced drivers - to log what they were doing just before an accident or a near-miss.
The most controversial element of the study is expected to be another finding: The act of just talking on a cell phone didn't increase the risk of a crash, regardless of a driver's experience.
Instead, it turns out the things that allow a driver to talk - such as dialing or reaching to get to a ringing phone - posed the real danger.
And those hazards were even greater than the risk posed by texting or using the Internet while driving.
"At least for novice teenage drivers, secondary tasks that take the eyes off the road pose a very high risk for crash," co-author Bruce Simons-Morton, a senior investigator at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development told Reuters Health in a telephone interview.
"It's true for adults too, but they seem to be better than novices at dividing their attention. They attend to tasks and look back up at the roadway without taking a long period of time," he said.
"Talking on a cell phone does not require the driver to look away from the road ahead," they said. "However, our findings should not be interpreted to suggest that there is no risk associated with this activity, since previous simulation and test-track research has shown that talking on a cell phone reduces attention to visible road hazards and degrades driving performance."
"It worries me that people will read this and proclaim that talking and driving is now safe," Dr. Amy Ship of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School told Reuters Health by phone. She was not connected with the research.
Ship said she was surprised to see the risk of talking was so low, but asserted that more evidence is needed, especially when other studies have shown that just the act of talking on the phone is hazardous. "It's 280 million people talking and driving, so the risk is still huge, and it's an avoidable risk."
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, confirms the danger of texting while driving, which is banned in many places. But it only looked at texting among novice drivers, whose actions were recorded for 18 months during 2006 to 2008.
The team, led by Shelia Klauer of the Virgina Tech Transportation Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia, did not gauge the texting risk for the experienced drivers because those data were collected for 12 months for each driver in 2003 and 2004, before texting became so popular.
The car of each driver was equipped with forward radar, a GPS, a lane tracker, a device that measures acceleration and four cameras, two of which showed what the driver was doing. Sudden movements of the car helped to indicate crashes and near-crashes.
None of the crashes during the study involved serious injury.
"This is the first study where we actually saw what they did to look at objective measures of distraction," said Simons-Morton.
In all, there were 685 crashes and near-crashes for which the driver shared the blame. The findings clearly showed that maturity mattered.
For experienced drivers, reaching for an object, or eating or drinking a nonalcoholic beverage while driving did not increase the risk of a crash - at least not enough to be statistically significant.
Yet dialing a cell phone was clearly a problem for the veterans. Their odds of a crash or near-crash jumped 2.5-fold as they tried to make a call.
But for novices who had been driving for 19 months or less, a lot of distracting activities interfered with their abilities.
The chance of having an accident or near-accident was 8.3 times higher while dialing a cell phone, 8.0 times greater while reaching for an object other than a cell phone, 7.1 times higher while just reaching for a cell phone, 3.9 times greater while sending or receiving a text message and 3.0 times greater when eating while driving.
Only drinking a nonalcoholic beverage, adjusting controls for the radio or heating system or talking on the cell phone didn't increase the risk for the novices.
Although young adults ages 15 to 20 years old account for 6.4 percent of all U.S. drivers, they are responsible for 10 percent of all motor vehicle traffic deaths and 14 percent of all crashes that result in injury.
About 9 percent of all drivers use their phone while on the road and their risk of a crash is four times higher than other drivers.
"It's clear that if we're going to target drivers, novice drivers and younger drivers are at highest risk for a whole variety of reason," Ship said.
"They're at higher risk independent of distracted driving, they're inexperienced and they have no sense of the risks associated with anything they're doing, on the road or otherwise. You take that trifecta and apply that to something that weighs two tons and moves quickly down the highway, it's a recipe for disaster."
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/19F1LID New England Journal of Medicine, online January 1, 2014.