Cell phones still cause teen crashes. Can they prevent them, too?

Teens are often looking at their phones before a crash, a study finds, as lawmakers and tech developers come up with creative ways to stop smartphone use on the road. 

Pat Wellenbach/AP
A driver looks at his phone in Maine. A study found more teen crashes involve drivers looking at their phones.

With school almost out, and more teenagers on the road this summer, the American Automobile Association (AAA) has new data in the push for safer drivers.

Nearly 60 percent of teen crashes involve drivers distracted by their phones, passengers, or even the gum they misplaced in the center console, according to a study by AAA and the University of Iowa. Researchers found teens that crashed were most distracted by talking and listening to passengers, not their devices, but the percentage of teens that crashed while on their cellphones still increased from 2007.

"I think everyone gets that distracted driving is bad and you shouldn't do it, but until now parents didn't have data in front of them to suggest that it was a much bigger problem that they should be concerned about for their teens," Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research at AAA, told US News and World Report.

As more and more Americans own smartphones, crashes involving drivers texting, browsing Facebook or snapping selfies will likely increase. The good news is lawmakers and software developers are responding. Most states have restricted how drivers can use their phones on the road, and software developers are coming up with ways to lock out certain phone functions during driving time.

For the study, researchers analyzed crash videos of teen drivers ages 16-19, examining in-car dash camera videos from 2,200 crashes. They found that teen drivers were distracted in the six seconds before an accident in 59 percent of crashes. In 15 percent of those, drivers were distracted by passengers; teens who talked, texted or browsed on their phones made up 12 percent of the crashes.

The percentage of teens on their phones is the roughly the same as in a previous study conducted by AAA and the University of Iowa. However, the way teens are on their phones at the time of a crash has changed. Although researchers found a decrease in the percentage of drivers who crashed while talking on their phones, they found more drivers crashed while looking at their phones.

Yet it's not just teens. Drivers, on the whole, are more glued to their phones than ever. States have started to address the problem, and they have honed in on teens and new drivers first.

Thirty-eight states have banned at least some teens and new drivers from using their cell phone at all, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Meanwhile, 46 states have banned drivers of any age or experience from texting, and law enforcement has come up with clever ways to enforce it. Members of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, for instance, drive a tractor-trailer that offers an elevated view into cars to catch drivers in the act, according to Consumer Reports.

Lawmakers in New York have attempted to make it even easier to determine, as The Christian Science Monitor's Madison Margolin reported in April. "Evan's Law" would allow police officers to use the Textalyzer program, a kind of Breathalyzer for texting, to determine if a driver was on their phone at the time of a crash.

Developers are trying to pitch in as well. A feature now patented by Apple would block out certain phone functions in three ways, according to NPR: "a motion sensor that knows when the phone is moving at driving speeds; by using a 'scenery analyzer' that can tell whether the phone is in a safe place in the car; and a lock-out mechanism that automatically disables things like texting for a period of time."

The patent isn't the first of its kind, but Apple's prominence "could have the power to change the culture behind texting and driving," as The Guardian notes. 

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