Drivers who dont pay attention or are distracted are three times as likely to be involved in a crash as drivers who pay attention to the road and don't eat breakfast, talk on cell a phone or put on make-up, a new study finds.

The study, sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, offers detailed evidence that inattentive driving causes accidents and that young drivers are much more likely to be distracted.

The report labels cell phone use as the most frequent behavior distracting drivers.

"The number of crashes and near-crashes attributable to dialing is nearly identical to the number associated with talking or listening," the report says. "Dialing is more dangerous but occurs less often than talking or listening."

According to the report, almost 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near misses occur within three seconds of some form of driver distraction.

Reaching for a moving object multiplied the risk of a crash or near-crash by nine times, according to the study. Reading, applying makeup, or dialing a handheld device tripled the risk.

The study found that drivers between 18 and 20 were four times as likely to have inattention-related crashes and near-crashes as drivers over 35.

Drowsiness is a significant problem that increases a drivers risk of a crash or near-crash by at least a factor of four. "But drowsy driving may be significantly under-reported in police crash investigations," according to researchers.

"Drivers who engage frequently in distracting activities are more likely to be involved in an inattention-related crash or near-crash," according to the report. "However, drivers are often unable to predict when it is safe to look away from the road to multi-task because the situation can change."

Researchers tracked the behavior of 241 drivers in 100 sensor-equipped vehicles for more than a year. During the 2 million miles of the study, the drivers were involved in 82 crashes and 761 near-crashes.

"This important research illustrates the potentially dire consequences that can occur while driving distracted or drowsy," said Jacqueline Glassman, acting administrator of NHTSA. "It's crucial that drivers always be alert when on the road.