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When teens crash cars, distractions usually to blame

FARGO — Distracted driving was a factor in almost 60 percent of all crashes by teenager drivers, four times as often as police reports indicated, according to a new study based on in-vehicle video recordings.

But that doesn’t come as a surprise to law enforcement officials in our region.

Police have known for years that drivers sometimes don’t tell the whole truth about where their attention was directed right before a crash, said police Sgt. Jim Kringlie of the Fargo Police Department’s traffic safety unit.

Lying about distracted driving to police, Kringlie said, is “human nature.”

There’s a particular incentive to do so in North Dakota, where a ticket for distracted driving can run $100, while the cap for most moving offenses is $20.

The study by AAA reviewed 1,700 videos of teen drivers taken by information-gather “black box” event recorders. The boxes captured six seconds before and after the crash.

It found that, of the mostly Midwestern 16- to 19-year-olds in the study, 58 percent of moderate-to-severe crashes included some sort of distracted driving, said AAA North Dakota spokesman Gene LaDoucer.

Based on police reports, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated distracted driving as a factor in just 14 percent of crashes with teen drivers, the study’s authors reported.

AAA has shared law enforcement suspicions for some years that the distracted-driving crashes are underreported, LaDoucer said.

“It’s hard to capture in police reports,” he said.

Moorhead police have joined with other local agencies in a Toward Zero Deaths campaign that kicks off April 13 and targets, in part, distracted driving. Sgt. Deric Swenson said this year’s program will again put officers in school buses to look for distracted driving violations.

Having spotters up high, out of the view of drivers, gave police a much more accurate notion of how many people were distracted behind the wheel, Swenson said.

“Social media has been really important to kids, and they feel obligated,” he said. “As time goes by, they feel obligated to look at it, to respond to that message.”

But LaDoucer said he didn’t think it was a concern just among teen drivers.

“It wouldn’t be at all surprising to find the same results in other age groups,” he said.

Kringlie agreed that it is not a generational issue.

In a recent distracted-driving blitz near North Dakota State University, police netted more multi-tasking middle-aged professionals texting behind the wheel than student-aged drivers, he said.

In spite of the focus on the dangers of texting and driving nationwide, the AAA study showed the most common form of teen driver distraction was interacting with one or more passengers, at 15 percent. That was followed by cellphone use, indicated in 12 percent of crashes.

LaDoucer said the nature of the distractions shows why AAA North Dakota supports proposed changes to state law to prohibit new teen drivers from carrying nonfamily members as passengers. State law in both North Dakota and Minnesota already restricts new teen drivers from driving at night and from using cellphones at all until the driver turns 18.

However, the teen passenger restriction didn’t make it into North Dakota’s state law when it was last considered in 2011.

“It was very concerning to us, very disappointing,” he said.

Minnesota restricts teen drivers to one nonfamily passenger under age 20 for the first six months after the new driver is licensed. For the remainder of the first year, new teen drivers can have no more than three nonfamily passengers under 20.

What makes distractions particularly dangerous for teen drivers is their inherent lack of experience behind the wheel, LaDoucer said.

The study showed decision errors like failure to yield or running a stop sign were in play in 66 percent of teens’ significant crashes.

“The combination is something we need to be worried about,” he said.