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Radios, not cellphones, distract car drivers

Washington, Aug. 7 (Reuters): Cellphones are the distraction that people love to hate, but researchers said yesterday that drivers were preoccupied more often with the radio, eating, or combing their hair while behind the wheel.

In the first study to use in-car video cameras to record driving habits, a research group funded by the automobile club AAA found all 70 motorists it watched were distracted at some point by conditions inside and outside the vehicle during a three-hour period.

All drivers were distracted up to 16 per cent of the time while the vehicle was moving. That did not include conversations with passengers, according to the study by the University of North Carolina’s highway safety research centre. “People often underestimate the seriousness of distractions because not every distraction leads to a crash,” said Peter Kissinger, president of the AAA’s traffic safety foundation. “But if you are distracted just when someone pulls out in front of you, your lack of attention can be catastrophic.”

An estimated 25 per cent of all traffic crashes are caused by distractions, highway safety figures show. About one-third of the motorists studied by the North Carolina researchers talked on a cellphone while driving, but 25 per cent of that use occurred when the vehicle was stopped.

Almost all the drivers manipulated music or audio controls, while 71 per cent ate or drank. About half groomed themselves and 40 per cent read or wrote. Most of the reading and writing and a third of grooming occurred when the car was stopped.

Grooming included using a toothpick, taking pills, applying lipstick and combing hair. For reading and writing, the researchers observed drivers writing in their cheque books or flipping through newspapers or mail.

“We found that people do adjust their behaviour to a certain extent,” Kissinger said.

Researchers said older drivers engaged in less distracting behaviour, but no age group was immune.

None of those taped in the auto safety study knew driving distraction was being measured.

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