Researchers with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analyzed nearly 1,700 videos of teen-driving crashes taken from in-vehicle event recorders and found distraction was a factor in 58 percent of the accidents. Previous estimates based on federal data showed distraction contributed to only 14 percent of teen-driving 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 Foundation for Traffic Safety. The study "provides indisputable evidence that teen drivers are distracted in a much greater percentage of crashes than we previously realized."
Teens have the highest crash rate of any age group in the US, and safety experts have long sought ways to better protect and educate young drivers.
Previously, researchers have relied on accident reports in compiling studies and analysis. But Foundation for Traffic Safety researchers believe those reports, which used to populate National Highway Traffic Safety Administration databases with distracted-driving data, may have far under-represented the role of distracted driving in many accidents.
Why? In part because it's hard for police officers to determine what caused distraction at accident scenes and drivers may be reluctant to self-report on their inattention or bad behavior. "There is often a lack of willingness on the part of drivers to report ... (and) this may be especially true for newly licensed teen drivers for whom the consequences are likely to be more severe," the report said.
Having access to video, audio and accelerometer data from the six seconds preceding a crash and the four seconds afterward gave the AAA researchers unprecedented insight into teen accidents.
Not only is distracted driving involved in six of every 10 teen accidents, they found distraction was a factor in 89 percent of road-departure crashes and 76 percent of rear-end crashes.
Cell-phones were a big source of that distraction. Their use was the second-most common form of distraction, according to the study, and researchers found that drivers had their eyes diverted from the road for an average of 4.1 seconds leading up to their crashes.
"Potentially distracting behaviors in general, and cell phone use in particular, were much more prevalent in the current study than in official statistics based on police reports," the AAA report found.
No fatal crashes were included in the analysis, nor were crashes in which teen drivers were struck from behind. Video was provided by Lytx, a global provider of video safety services in the transportation industry.
The top cause of distraction for teen drivers was interacting with one or more passengers. Researchers found that to be the cause of 15 percent of distracted-driving accidents among the teen drivers.
That finding builds upon previous research from Texas A&M which found that drivers ages 15 to 17 were eight times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than those ages 18 to 24 if they were carrying one or more passengers.
AAA found that when two or more passengers were present, they "were significantly more likely to be making loud noises, moving around in the vehicle and texting/using cell phone than when only a single passenger was present."
One interesting note from the study: results indicated that more males were involved in single-vehicle crashes, 56 percent to 44 percent. The results were flip-flopped in vehicle-to-vehicle crashes, where females were behind the wheel in 53 percent of accidents.
AAA says roughly 963,000 drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 were involved in police-reported crashes in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. These crashes resulted in 2,865 deaths and more than 383,000 injuries.