The Most Dangerous Things to Do on Your Phone While Driving

You're eight times more likely to crash or nearly crash when dialing, a new study found.
Lord Jim/flickr

If Werner Herzog hasn't already convinced you not to touch your phone while driving, perhaps this will. Dialing a cellphone is the most dangerous thing you can do in a car, according to a new study from the New England Journal of Medicine, and increases your risk of crashing or nearly crashing eight-fold.

Researchers collected 12-18 months of driving data from 42 newly licensed teenaged drivers from southwestern Virginia, as well as from 109 more experienced motorists from Washington, all driving cars that had been outfitted with cameras, accelerometers, and GPS devices. 

A team of analysts evaluated the records for evidence of a crash, defined as any physical contact with another object, or a near-crash, defined as a last-minute maneuver that challenged the physical limitations of the vehicle to avoid a collision. These "near-crashes," the study authors write, are reliable surrogates for crashes. They then correlated the car movements with the camera footage of the drivers, evaluating them for actions like talking on a phone, dialing a phone, looking out the window, or adjusting their radio.

In all, the drivers got into 73 crashes and 612 near-crashes during the study period. Among the novice drivers, dialing a cellphone made them 8.32 times likelier to get into a crash or near-crash. Meanwhile, the odds were "8 times higher when reaching for something besides their cellphone; 7.05 times higher when trying to grab the phone; 3.9 times higher when looking at something on the side of the road (including cars involved in other crashes); and 2.99 times higher when eating," the LA Times reported. Drinking and adjusting the radio were deemed relatively safe.

Among the experienced drivers, dialing a cellphone was the only activity that increased the risk of a crash or near-crash —it made a collision 2.49 times more likely.

One reason for the elevated risk is that our brains are not actually designed for multitasking — most people can only focus on one activity at a time. More teens now die from texting while driving than from drinking and driving.

Here's a look at the odds breakdown for each of the activities studied:

Odds ratios for a crash during various activities conducted while driving, as evaluated by NEJM

If texting and Web browsing seem surprisingly benign on this list, that might be because the younger drivers were tracked between 2006 and 2008, before smartphones arrived on the scene and prompted a rise in texting and emailing.

Still, the elevated odds of crashing while texting—3.87—isn't worth the risk.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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