A sophisticated, real-world study confirms that dialing, texting or reaching for a cellphone while driving raises the risk of a crash or near-miss, especially for younger drivers.
But the research also produced a surprise: Simply talking on the phone did not prove dangerous, as it has in other studies.
This one did not distinguish between handheld and hands-free devices — a major weakness.
And even though talking doesn't require drivers to take their eyes off the road, it's hard to talk on a phone without first reaching for it or dialing a number —things that raise the risk of a crash, researchers note.
Earlier work with simulators, test-tracks and cellphone records suggests that risky driving increases when people are on cellphones, especially teens. The 15-to-20-year-old age group accounts for 6 percent of all drivers but 10 percent of traffic deaths and 14 percent of police-reported crashes with injuries.
For the new study, researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute installed video cameras, global positioning systems, lane trackers, gadgets to measure speed and acceleration, and other sensors in the cars of 42 newly licensed drivers 16 or 17 years old, and 109 adults with an average of 20 years behind the wheel.
The risk of a crash or near-miss among young drivers increased more than sevenfold if they were dialing or reaching for a cellphone and fourfold if they were sending or receiving a text message.