Effect of Distraction on Teen Driving Performance in an Emotionally Realistic Driving Simulator

Principal Investigator: Yi-Ching Lee, PhD, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Below is an executive summary of this project. Please note that this summary describes results and interpretation that may not be final. Final interpretation of results will be in the peer-reviewed literature.

A view from one of the study’s experimental drives in CHOP’s driving simulator

A main reason why teens crash is being distracted while driving. This study, conducted in CHOP’s driving simulator, examined how young novice drivers handle typical stressful traffic events, such as a motorcycle running a red light and a car backing out of a driveway while being concurrently distracted. The 16- to 20-year-old participants had their license for six months or less. After collecting their risk perceptions, cognitive flexibility (the ability to shift thoughts or actions as demanded by the situational context), and decision-making about risk-taking, participants practiced driving in the simulator. They then took two experimental drives that included a mixture of driving environments (e.g., city, highway) with different speed limits, surrounding traffic, buildings, and landmarks and were asked to imagine themselves going into the city to attend an event. Besides being instructed to follow all traffic laws and to drive safely, participants were concurrently distracted by being asked to provide a verbal answer as quickly as possible to math questions they saw on the simulator screen. To encourage attention to the distracting event, the participants were offered a performance bonus for answering the questions.

The two experimental drives contained ten traffic events and some of the math questions occurred while the traffic events were unfolding. The project is currently in the data management and analysis phase. We compared participants’ cognitive flexibility and their performance on the math calculations. Teens who demonstrated lower cognitive flexibility performed worse on the math calculations. This finding suggests that the secondary in-vehicle task is successfully manipulating teens’ directed attention, and we are exploring the effect on driving skills.


Catherine Smith, Temple University; Michael Chang, Drexel University

IAB Mentors

Clayne Woodbury, RealTime Technologies Inc.; Christina Mullen, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company; Doug Longhitano, Honda R&D Americas Inc.