Number of distracted teen drivers is on the rise, study suggests

A head-on collision on Northwest Skyview Avenue that killed a 72-year-old great-grandmother on Sept. 26, 2011, was blamed on a 16-year-old texting while driving. Rachel Gannon of Kansas City, North, was prosecuted.
A head-on collision on Northwest Skyview Avenue that killed a 72-year-old great-grandmother on Sept. 26, 2011, was blamed on a 16-year-old texting while driving. Rachel Gannon of Kansas City, North, was prosecuted. Kansas City Star file photo

Distracted driving is a factor in almost six out of 10 moderate to severe crashes involving teenage drivers, according to a study released Wednesday.

That’s four times the rate cited in many previous estimates.

The study conducted by researchers with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety examined in-car videos that showed what teen drivers were doing in the seconds before a wreck. The video systems, available for years, can be used to help train young drivers.

The study’s results reinforced suspicions of Kansas City area traffic safety officials who believe distracted-driving incidents involving teens to be greatly underreported.

Its videos prove winceworthy, as young people stare at cellphones or talk with friends while their cars drift back and forth between lanes, dart off the road or come up suddenly on vehicles ahead of them.

“It’s very sobering video,” said Markl Johnson, Missouri Department of Transportation communications specialist in Lee’s Summit. “It brings home just how important it is to stay focused on the road.”

Researchers studied almost 1,700 videos. Distraction figured into 58 percent of the crash incidents, they said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Association previously estimated distraction to be a factor in only about 14 percent of all teen driver crashes.

Traffic safety professionals long have felt that true number was higher, said Chris Bortz, Kansas Department of Transportation safety manager. One problem is that police officers compiling crash reports often must rely on drivers to self-report whether distraction played a role.

“The typical answer the officers get is ‘No, I wasn’t distracted,’” Bortz said. “But the video is an outside observation as to what actually happens.”

AAA Foundation researchers cited cellphone use as a contributing factor in 12 percent of crashes.

But the largest percentage of distractions, 15 percent, was attributed to “interacting with one or more passengers.” Other factors included looking at something inside the vehicle (10 percent), looking at something outside the vehicle other than the road (9 percent), singing or moving to music (8 percent), or grooming or reaching for an object (6 percent each).

In Missouri, drivers younger than 21 break the law if they text while driving.

In Kansas, state law prohibits drivers from using a cellphone to text or send emails.

A proposed Kansas bill also would prohibit drivers from talking on a cellphone but still allow use of a hands-free device. But the bill’s chances appear slim, Bortz said.

In Missouri, enforcing the texting ban for young drivers is a challenge, said Eric Zahnd, Platte County prosecuting attorney.

“It’s not surprising that very few tickets are written for teens who are texting while driving,” Zahnd said. “I suspect that texting while driving is involved in many more instances than cases are ever prosecuted, just because of the difficulty in gathering evidence.”

Zahnd was one of the first Missouri prosecutors to pursue charges against a texting teenager who caused a fatal wreck.

In 2012, Rachel Gannon of Kansas City, North, pleaded guilty to second-degree involuntary manslaughter, third-degree assault and violation of the Missouri law prohibiting motorists 21 or younger from texting while driving.

As a 16-year-old driver the previous year, Gannon slammed into a car driven by Loretta Larimer, a 72-year-old great-grandmother who had pulled off a road in an attempt to avoid a collision.

Larimer died. The investigating officer learned of Gannon’s cellphone texts from a passenger in her car.

“But in many cases, we don’t have that,” Zahnd said.

Between 2009 and 2014, an average of 92 persons per year died in Kansas due to distracted driving, according to KDOT statistics. That means distracted driving contributed to nearly one in four fatalities.

“We support the overall reduction of distracted driving,” Bortz said. “The goal has always been to get people to consider driving as a full-time job.”

Telecommunications companies are responding.

The AT&T DriveMode app for iPhone silences incoming text message alerts when a driver’s vehicle is moving 15 mph or faster. Sprint offers a Sprint Drive First app for Android devices that sends calls to voicemail and silences email and text alerts when a vehicle reaches 10 mph.

The AAA Foundation researchers studied videos recorded by an in-car system that captured both the driver’s behavior and the roads ahead of them. The technology, today used by about 500 commercial and government fleets, also is used by programs that coach drivers to improve their driving.

It’s possible that the young drivers in the videos knew the system had been installed in their vehicles, said Paul Atchley, psychology professor at the University of Kansas. And yet they still allowed themselves to be distracted, he said.

Atchley often has been asked to testify in court on whether inattention caused by cellphones can lead to crashes. Often in such proceedings, lawyers examine the message that allegedly distracted a driver.

“Most of the messages are status updates,” Atchley said.

“Rarely, if ever, are they the kinds of things that couldn’t have waited until the drive was over.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

58 percent of accident videos in the study showed teen drivers distracted in the seconds before a crash.

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