As America continues to assess the impact of combining two favorite pastimes -- driving and cell phone use -- a new study from Virginia Tech shows that a range of phone related activities is putting younger motorists at risk.

But dialing while driving -- a task that grows more uncommon with the proliferation of voice-command phones and cars -- also represents a huge safety risk for more experienced drivers, as well.

Older Drivers More Disciplined

Details of the research were published in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 4. The team of researchers led by Sheila G. Klauer of Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute reports that there were 31 crashes and 136 near-crashes among the novice drivers studied, and 42 crashes and 476 near-crashes among the experienced drivers.

The younger drivers were prone to a range of dangerous habits such as dialing, texting, reaching for an object, eating or looking at roadside objects. The seasoned drivers behaved more responsibly, but still were prone to the temptation to dial their phones while driving.

In all cases, the common denominator was the driver shifting attention away from the front view while in motion, even momentarily.

"The secondary tasks associated with the risk of a crash or near-crash all required the driver to look away from the road ahead," the researchers wrote in their discussion of the study. The prevalence of high-risk performance of secondary tasks was similar overall in the two groups, although it increased among young drivers over the 18-month study period, possibly because of increased confidence in driving over time."

Restrictions Helpful

The researchers noted that the risks taken by younger drivers have led to implementation of a graduated licensing system in all 50 U.S. states, whereby drivers must have clean records to pass from a permit to a restricted license, and then on to full driver's license.

"Our finding of the association of several secondary tasks with a significantly increased risk of a crash or near-crash among young drivers provides support for policies limiting the performance of these tasks through graduated licensing requirements or other policy initiatives," the study said.

In an interview, Virginia Tech's Klauer acknowledged that driving and phone habits have changed today because of the increasing availability of voice commands and calls routed through the vehicle dashboard speakers. But she noted that smartphones continue to provide new levels of distraction, such as incoming text messages, social media notifications, etc.

Old Habits Die Hard

"We are big proponents of these systems," she told us, referring to voice commands. "But they are not widespread, and these days, teenagers are using smartphones for Instagram and Skype and to play movies."

Asked if the data can be considered reliable since the subjects knew they were being monitored, and more of them may engage in risky behavior when the cameras are off, Klauer said bad habits were powerful.

"The types of behavior we saw happened within hours of initiating the test," she said. "I can nearly promise you people forget [about the cameras]. In the past few years, I have driven some of these vehicles myself and I can tell you, you forget" you're being monitored.

Research Caveats

Results of the Virginia Tech study are interesting, although it's important to note that the data is somewhat outdated. The study was based on data from the Naturalistic Teenage Driving Study and the Naturalistic 100-Car Driving Study, published in 2010. But original data for the study was collected from 2003 to 2008, when sophisticated and highly capable smartphones were not widely in use. (Keep in mind: the iPhone, for example, only first became available in June 2007.)

In both studies, cameras, GPS trackers, accelerometers and other devices monitored the driving habits of a range of drivers. The teenage survey observed 42 new drivers (22 females and 20 males) from southwestern Virginia. The average age was 16, with about three weeks of driving experience.

The 100-Car Study monitored 109 participants (43 women and 66 men) ages 18 to 72 from the Washington, D.C. area.