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A study run by the University of Pennsylvania found that speeding and handheld cellphone use largely contribute to the dangerous behaviors exhibited by teen drivers. Credit: Diego Cárdenas

Teenage drivers are prone to risky behaviors while driving, particularly speeding and handheld cellphone use, which contribute to motor vehicle crashes, according to a Penn Nursing study.

Researchers used a new cellphone application to track teen drivers and found that adolescents, regardless of sex, tend to adopt dangerous behaviors on the road, which lead to car crashes — the leading cause of adolescent deaths in the United States. Out of the 11,342 trips studied, 40% involved speeding, 30% detected handheld cellphone use, and 5% involved handheld cellphone use while speeding.

Penn Nursing professor Catherine McDonald led the research study, which was first presented during the American Academy of Pediatrics's 2022 National Conference & Exhibition. In addition to teaching, McDonald acts as the vice-chair of the Department of Family and Community Health at the Nursing School and co-director of the Penn Injury Science Center.

Researchers collected data through a cellphone application called Way to Drive, which is managed by Penn. The study tracked the driving skills of 165 licensed Pennsylvania drivers with an average age of 17.3 and an average length of licensure of eight months.

The study found that hard braking and rapid accelerations occurred in around 10% of trips. Male participants engaged in certain risky behaviors more often than female participants did, but speeding, handheld cellphone use, and nighttime driving did not see a significant difference between the sexes.

"Given the rapidly changing technology in the daily life of adolescents, this study also builds on previous research and helps to identify patterns related to cellphone use while driving among adolescents,” McDonald told Penn Nursing.

Variations in risky driving behaviors emphasize opportunities for targeted interventions on these behaviors to reduce motor vehicle crashes — a leading cause of death for adolescents — but also to simply encourage safe driving, McDonald added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which supported the Penn Nursing research study, has established seven factors that put teens at risk when driving: inexperience, nighttime driving, not using seatbelts, distracted driving, speeding, alcohol consumption, and drug/substance use. The National Institute of Nursing Research at the National Institutes of Health also supported the research.