WASHINGTON -- A study found all drivers fiddle with their radios or engage in other distracting behavior, even when they're being watched as part of a study on distracted drivers.
Cell phones were not the major distraction, the study found. Only 30 percent of the subjects used a cell phone while their vehicle was moving, compared with 97 percent who leaned over to reach for something and 91 percent who fiddled with radio controls.
The study, released Wednesday by AAA, the auto club, and researchers at the University of North Carolina, tracked 70 drivers from North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
The drivers had miniature cameras placed in their cars for a week, and researchers randomly selected three hours to view their behavior. The first three hours of each tape were eliminated in the hope that drivers would act more naturally later in the week.
Drivers were distracted 16.1 percent of the time their vehicles were moving.
The study considered a wide range of behaviors to be distracting, including talking to passengers. Seventy-seven percent of drivers had conversations while driving.
"People may not realize how distracted they are," said Peter Kissinger, president of AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety. "Talking to a passenger seems quite safe, but even something that simple takes away from the road."
Jim Champagne, a former Louisiana state trooper who heads that state's highway safety commission, said studies like AAA's are critical because researchers still have no clear idea of the extent of the driver distraction problem. But he believes drivers who participated may have changed their behavior because of the cameras.
Ultimately, studying accident data will be the best way to understand the problem, Champagne said. In June, the federal government and the Governors Highway Safety Association asked states to start recording whether distraction played a role in accidents. Many are now making that change, Champagne said.
"We never have taken seriously that we need to be 100 percent attentive to our driving," Champagne said. "You can tell people that they shouldn't eat and drink while they're driving, but the bottom line is we're Americans, and we think we can do five or six things at a time."
AAA also suggested that states start including a section dedicated to the problem of distracted driving in driver education manuals. Manuals produced by only six states - Arkansas, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Virginia and Wisconsin - now have such sections.
Ten states warn that radio dials can be a distraction, while 19 warn against cell phone use while driving, AAA said. Thirty-one states have enacted or are considering laws to ban or restrict the use of cell phones while driving.
Champagne said Louisiana lawmakers passed a bill this year to add a section on distraction to the state's driver manual.
On the Net:
AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, http://www.aaafoundation.org
Governors Highway Safety Association, http://www.ghsa.org