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Distraction and Teen Crashes: Even Worse than Thought

Unprecedented Look into the Causes of Teen Crashes by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

15 teen distraction study

The most comprehensive in-vehicle research ever conducted into crash videos of unsupervised teen drivers has found significant evidence that distracted driving is likely much more serious a problem than previously known, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The unprecedented video analysis finds that distraction was a factor in nearly 6 out of 10 moderate-to-severe teen crashes, which is four times higher than the official estimates based on police report data.

Researchers analyzed the six seconds leading up to a crash in nearly 1,700 videos of teen drivers taken from in-vehicle event recorders. Results showed that distraction was a factor in 58 percent of all crashes studied; including 89 percent of road-departure crashes and 76 percent of rear-end crashes. NHTSA previously estimated that distraction is a factor in only 14 percent of all teen driver crashes.

“Access to crash videos has allowed us to better understand the moments leading up to a vehicle impact in a way that was previously impossible,” said Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The in-depth analysis provides indisputable evidence that teen drivers are distracted in a much greater percentage of crashes than we previously realized.”

The most common distractions leading up to a crash by a teen driver included:

  • Interacting with one or more passengers: 15 percent
  • Cell phone use: 12 percent
  • Looking at something in the vehicle: 10 percent
  • Looking at something outside the vehicle: 9 percent
  • Singing/moving to music: 8 percent
  • Grooming: 6 percent
  • Reaching for an object: 6 percent

“Passengers and cell phones were the most common distractions – causing a combined 27 percent of crashes -- and why 33 states have laws that prevent cell phone use for teens and 18 states have graduated driver licensing passenger restrictions meeting AAA’s recommendations,” said the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Community Programs and Traffic Safety Manager Anita Lorz Villagrana. “These factors increase crash risks for unsupervised teen drivers.  Young novice drivers have fewer hours behind the wheel and cannot draw upon driving experience to manage unsafe conditions.”

Researchers found that drivers manipulating their cell phone (includes calling, texting or other uses), had their eyes off the road for an average of 4.1 out of the final six seconds leading up to a crash. The researchers also measured reaction times in rear-end crashes and found that teen drivers using a cell phone failed to react more than half of the time before the impact, meaning  they crashed without braking or steering.

Graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws allow new drivers to gain practical experience in a relatively safe environment by limiting their exposure to risky situations such as nighttime driving and carrying passengers. New teen drivers are subject to California’s GDL law, which includes year-long restrictions on newly licensed drivers. Current law restrictions only cover the first 12 months of driving with a provisional license.  The Auto Club also is supporting AB235, authored by Jim Frazier (D-Oakley), which strengthens California GDL by extending restrictions up to age 18 for newly licensed teens.

Why is this important? Teens have the highest crash rate of any group in the United States. About 963,000 drivers age 16-19 were involved in police-reported crashes in 2013, the most recent year of available data. These crashes resulted in 383,000 injuries and 2,865 deaths.  In California, 11,120 teen drivers were killed and injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2012, the latest data available. Parents and teens can learn more about teen driver issues and California teen driver permit and licensing requirements by visiting the AAA web site or on

Parents play a critical role in preventing distracted driving. AAA recommends that parents teach teens about cell phone use dangers and restrict passengers during the learning-to-drive process.  Before parents begin practice driving with teens, they should create a parent-teen driving agreement that includes strict ground rules related to distraction. AAA offers a comprehensive driver education program, where teens can learn specifically how using a cell phone affects driving abilities and increases their crash risk. For more information, visit

The full research report and b-roll video of teen driver crashes is available on the AAA Foundation’s website. The Foundation partnered with researchers at the University of Iowa to conduct this study.

Lytx™, Inc., a global leader in video-based driver safety technology using in-vehicle event recorders, provided the collision videos. Each video is 12-seconds long and provides information from before and after the (trigger) crash.

Established by AAA in 1947, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety is a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit, publicly-supported charitable educational and research organization.  Visit for more information on this and other research.

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The Automobile Club of Southern California is a member club affiliated with the American Automobile Association (AAA) national federation and serves members in the following California counties: Inyo, Imperial, Kern, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, and Ventura.