VCU study finds cell phones are not the leading cause of distracted driving

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RICHMOND, Va. – Rubbernecking, driver fatigue and looking at scenery are some of the leading causes of distraction-related traffic crashes, according to a study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University. The study, conducted for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, may be one of the most comprehensive of its kind in the nation. More than 2,700 crash scenes involving distracted drivers and nearly 4,500 drivers were studied. 

"We've known for years that drivers contribute more to causing crashes than the vehicle or the roadway," said Robert J. Breitenbach, director of VCU's Transportation Safety Training Center. "In many instances the driver error involves not paying attention to the driving task. We can now identify those distractions with some confidence."

While cell phones have been widely criticized as the cause of distracted driving, they ranked sixth in the study's list of distracted driving behaviors.  Looking at traffic, crashes and roadside incidents was the primary distraction in 16 percent of the crashes studied, followed by driver fatigue, 12 percent; looking at scenery, 10 percent; passenger and child distractions, nine percent; and adjusting the radio, CD or tape player, seven percent. Cell phones were cited as the primary distraction in slightly more than five percent of the crashes studied. Distractions inside the vehicle accounted for 62 percent of all the crashes studies.

"I think Virginia is a nice microcosm of the United States," said James M. Ellis with VCU's Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory, which conducted the study in conjunction with the VCU Transportation Safety Training Center. "It has rural and urban areas; and a diverse population, climate and road network."

Most crashes in the study, 62 percent, occurred in rural areas, often resulting from driver fatigue, insects, animals and unrestrained pet distractions. Distracted-driving crashes in urban areas often resulted from drivers looking at other crashes, traffic or vehicles or cell phone use.

Using federal grant funds, DMV requested the study to test a standard list of distracted driving behaviors. This list will be used by law enforcement when they report a traffic crash involving distracted driving. 

"Law enforcement officers complete an accident report for every traffic crash," said Department of Motor Vehicles assistant commissioner Vince Burgess. "The information not only helps us keep tabs on Virginia's traffic crashes, it also provides us with valuable research information for driving issues, such as distracted driving." 

Burgess noted there are many causes of distracted driving and law enforcement officers tend to use different terminology to describe the same behaviors. "Standardizing the list of distracted driving behaviors will strengthen our research data."

State troopers in all divisions and law enforcement in selected counties and cities participated in the study, which was conducted from June 15, 2002 through Nov. 30, 2002. 

Annually, driver distraction accounts for roughly 13 percent of all traffic crashes in Virginia, according to DMV.

Top 15 causes of distracted driving*

 Type of Distraction

Percentage of Crashes Caused 

1. Looking at crash, vehicle, roadside incident or traffic


2. Driver fatigue


3. Looking at scenery or landmarks


4. Passenger or child distraction


5. Adjusting radio or changing CD or tape


6. Cell phone


7. Eyes not on road


8. Not paying attention, day dreaming


9. Eating or drinking


10. Adjusting vehicle controls


11. Weather conditions


12. Unknown


13. Insect, animal or object entering or striking vehicle


14. Document, book, map, directions or newspaper


15. Medical or emotional impairment


* These percentages have been weighted to reflect variations in reporting statewide. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.9 percentage points.

About VCU's Transportation Safety Training Center

The Transportation Safety Training Center (TSTC) was formed in 1971 as a joint venture between Virginia's highway safety office and VCU. Today, the training center is a part of VCU's Center for Public Policy. Working closely with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), the TSTC helps Virginia's local and state transportation safety agencies and organizations meet their transportation safety goals through training, curriculum development and technical assistance.

About VCU's Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory

Founded in 1982, the Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory examines public issues and social problems through applied research techniques to broaden and improve public discourse and decision-making. SERL serves the research needs of state, local and federal government; university departments, faculty and students, organizations in the non-profit and private sectors, and the mass media through approximately 100 projects each year.