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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2015 / 01 

Transportation institute’s New England Journal of Medicine article vaults into top-read ranks

January 14, 2015

Tom Dingus and Charlie Klauer
Tom Dingus and Charlie Klauer.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s research efforts into identifying and curbing distracted driving continues to make great impact nationwide. 

A study by institute researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine approximately one year ago has vaulted to the Top 15 most-read of more than 10,000 studies published by the prestigious, 200-year-old journal.

Additionally, the same article has been ranked as the 58th most “talked about” study among thousands of research articles published in 2014, according to Altmetric.com, which tracks and ranks academic papers and their impacts with universities and the public, focusing on citations and mentions. 

Written with the National Institutes of Health, the article focuses on how teenage or novice drivers fall into complacency.

In the study, "Distracted Driving and Risk of Road Crashes among Novice and Experienced Drivers" published in the Jan. 2, 2014, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, authors found that teenagers begin their driving routine with great caution, but as months behind the wheel pass, they begin to multi-task at higher frequency rates – dialing cell phones, eating, and talking to passengers, etc.  – and therefore greatly raise their risk of crashes and/or near-crashes. 

Serving as first author on the paper was Charlie Klauer, group leader for teen risk and injury prevention at the institute’s Center for Vulnerable Road User Safety. 

“My co-authors and I believe these results were important findings to publish to inform the wider research community of the dangers of secondary task engagement for both novice and experienced drivers,” said Klauer. “That it has had an extensive impact on not only the research community, but also media outlets, is extraordinarily exciting because it means that we are having an impact on society at-large. This greater impact will lead to increased public awareness and hopefully save teenager’s lives on our roadways.”

Dozens of U.S. media outlets, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and ABC News, featured interviews with Klauer and the Virginia Tech research team.

The study found that dangerous distractions for novice drivers – versus experienced drivers – include handling of a cell phone to dial or text, reaching away from the steering wheel, looking at something alongside the road, and eating. All these acts were statistically significant as a distraction. 

Further, traffic studies cite that drivers from 15 years to 20 years of age represent 6.4 percent of all motorists on the road, but account for 11.4 percent of fatalities and 14 percent of police-reported crashes resulting in injuries.

The team of institute and NIH researchers compared the results of a one-year, 100-car study with drivers between 18 and 72 years of age with an average of 20 years’ experience and an 18-month study of 42 teens who had drivers’ licenses for less than three weeks when the study began. Participants from both studies drove vehicles outfitted with the data acquisition systems developed at the institute, including a minimum of four cameras and a suite of sensors that collected video and driving performance data.

Serving as co-authors were Feng Guo, an associate professor of statistics with the Virginia Tech College of Science; Suzie E. Lee, a research scientist at the institute; Marie Claude Ouimet, an assistant professor at the University of Sherbrooke in Montreal; and Bruce G. Simons-Morton, a senior investigator with the National Institutes of Health’s Child Health and Human Development division.

Also serving as a co-author was Tom Dingus, the institute’s director and an endowed professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. 

“The fact that a transportation article has received so much attention in such a high-impact journal speaks volumes about the quality of work performed here,” said Dingus. “All of us have dedicated our lives to this endeavor -- to saving the lives of others on the roadways -- but this illustrates just how tangible that work really is to the public. This is more than just a ranking: this means we are engaging policy makers, the research community, and the public in a discussion about driver safety, and we continue to have a unique opportunity to effect change.”

Researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute are continuing work into developing techniques to assess distracted driving.

“While the results from this study were important, we are in the final stages of three additional larger-scale naturalistic driving studies which in total will include more than 400 teen drivers and several million miles of continuous video and sensor data,” said Dingus, adding that will be a number of high impact papers on crash causation will be published during the next 12 to 18 months. “We believe this is only the beginning of our critical work to improving driving safety for not only teen drivers, but drivers of all ages.”

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