Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Distracted Driving Research

distracted driving research

Cell phones and passengers are a major source of inattention to the roadway and are a contributing factor in motor vehicle crashes involving teens behind the wheel. Engaging in handheld cell phone use increases the risk of a crash substantially, and distracted driving research is much needed to prevent crashes involving young drivers. Investigators at the University of Pennsylvania and the Center for Injury Research and Prevention are working together to develop behavior change interventions that include strategies to encourage focused attention on driving.

These studies are testing different interventions aimed at reducing distracted driving, particularly in teen drivers, including a web-based educational intervention, as well as different ways to implement technological solutions, such as automated blocking of cell phone use and silencing of notifications while the vehicle is in motion. Outcomes for these studies are measured either through use of a driving simulator and/or a smartphone application and paired in-vehicle device.

Implementation of Technology that Limits Handheld Cell Phone Use While Driving

Novel smartphone applications exist that can limit handheld cell phone use while the vehicle is in motion by locking the phone screen, silencing notifications, and sending automated responses to incoming text messages. These applications work by detecting when the vehicle is traveling over a certain speed threshold. In some cases, hands-free use of navigation and music apps may be permitted if programmed at the beginning of the drive or while stopped. We are testing different ways to implement this technology to sustainably reduce cell phone use distraction in the long run. Ongoing pilot studies of distracted driving research include:

  • Way to Safety 3.0: The Teen-Parent Study. Teen drivers often tell researchers their parents urge them not to text while driving because it is dangerous, yet the teens frequently see them checking email or texting while driving. In this study, researchers are using a smartphone application that tracks and limits cell phone use while driving. Parents are notified via email when their teen overrides the cell phone blocking function. The study tests the feasibility of an intervention in which teens also receive an email alert when their parents override the cell phone blocking function. The overall goal of the research is to reduce rates of cell phone use while driving for the entire family.
  • Way to Safety 2.0: Opt-in vs. Opt-out Cellphone Blocking +/-Notifications. This study tests the feasibility of different cell phone blocking strategies among teen drivers. The first is “opt-in” blocking, which is similar to using “Airplane Mode:” Drivers must remember to turn on the app when getting in the car. The second is “opt-out” blocking: The app activates automatically when the vehicle is in motion. The third strategy is “opt-out” blocking with notifications: This is the same as the second strategy, but parents will also be alerted when the teen overrides the blocking strategy.

Attitudes on Technological, Social, and Behavioral Economic Strategies to Reduce Cell Phone Use While Driving in Teens

The majority of U.S. teens admit to handheld cell phone use while driving, an increasingly common cause of crashes. Attitudes towards novel cell phone applications and settings that block use while driving are poorly understood, potentially limiting their use. The researchers examined teens' willingness to reduce cell phone use while driving and perceptions of potential strategies to limit this behavior via a survey. Their findings were published in Traffic Injury Prevention in April 2018.

Read the study abstract.

Read the press release.

Feasibility Testing of an Intervention to Reduce Teen Driver Inattention

This program of research uses a web-based intervention based on the Theory of Planned Behavior that aims to reduce distracted driving and teen driver inattention to the roadway. Researchers developed the intervention from elicitation and survey data from previous work and empirical evidence in the literature. They then tested the intervention in two different studies. One study used driving simulation to test the effects of the intervention on cell phone use, passenger engagement and driving performance, and the other used in-vehicle monitoring of cell-phone use while driving. Read the study abstract and listen to a podcast about the research behind the creation of this web-based intervention.

Read a blog post about the research

Listen to a podcast on distracted driving prevention featuring Catherine C. McDonald, PhD, RN

Principal Investigators: Kit Delgado, MD, MS; Catherine C. McDonald, PhD, RNFunding: Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics/Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics Pilot Grants Program; University of Pennsylvania NIA Roybal Center for Behavioral Economics; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Nursing Research; the University Research Foundation at PENN; the Dr. Dorothy Mereness Endowed Research Fund at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing