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Relationship of near-crash/crash risk to time spent on a cell phone while driving

Farmer, Charles M.; Klauer, Sheila G.; McClafferty, Julie A.; Guo, Feng
Traffic Injury Prevention (TIP)
November 2015

Objectives: The objective of this study was to examine in a naturalistic driving setting the dose–response relationship between cell phone usage while driving and risk of a crash or near crash. How is the increasing use of cell phones by drivers associated with overall near-crash/crash risk (i.e., during driving times both on and off the phone)?
Methods: Day-to-day driving behavior of 105 volunteer subjects was monitored over a period of 1 year. A random sample was selected comprised of 4 trips from each month that each driver was in the study, and in-vehicle video was used to classify driver behavior. The proportion of driving time spent using a cell phone was estimated for each 3-month period and correlated with overall crash and near-crash rates for each period. Thus, it was possible to test whether changes in an individual driver's cell phone use over time were associated with changes in overall near-crash/crash risk.
Results: Drivers in the study spent 11.7% of their driving time interacting with a cell phone, primarily talking on the phone (6.5%) or simply holding the phone in their hand or lap (3.7%). The risk of a near-crash/crash event was approximately 17% higher when the driver was interacting with a cell phone, due primarily to actions of reaching for/answering/dialing, which nearly triples risk (relative risk = 2.84). However, the amount of driving time spent interacting with a cell phone did not affect a driver's overall near-crash/crash risk. Vehicle speeds within 6 s of the beginning of each call on average were 5–6 mph lower than speeds at other times.
Conclusions: Results of this naturalistic driving study are consistent with the observation that increasing cell phone use in the general driving population has not led to increased crash rates. Although cell phone use can be distracting and crashes have occurred during this distraction, overall crash rates appear unaffected by changes in the rate of cell phone use, even for individual drivers. Drivers compensate somewhat for the distraction by conducting some of the more demanding tasks, such as reaching for or dialing a cell phone, at lower speeds. It is also possible that cell phones and other electronic devices in cars are changing how drivers manage their attention to various tasks and/or changing the kinds of secondary tasks in which they engage.