On Monday, the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life project released a new survey about teens' experiences with cell phone use in cars: Teens and Distracted Driving. They found that nearly 50 percent of all teens ages 12-17 have been in a car while the driver was texting, and among older teens, ages 16-17, more than 40 percent have talked on a cell phone while driving and more than 25 percent have texted while driving.
These results, which the Washington Post described as "frightening," are not altogether unsurprising. Texting while driving. It's just so tempting, especially if you're at a long light or stuck in traffic.
It's also become a serious driving distraction.
The problem is so serious that 19 states plus the District of Columbia have some sort of ban on texting while driving, and in October a presidential order barred all federal employees from using cell phones while driving. In a much publicized case in the UK last year, a young woman was sentenced to 21-months in prison under British laws that consider prolonged texting as an aggravating factor in "death by dangerous driving."
In September, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver and more than half a million were injured.
But that doesn't seem to be stopping us. In a telephone survey conducted last spring by the AAA Foundation, one in five drivers reported sending or reading a text or email message while driving, with reports of texting or emailing highest among teenaged drivers.
Which leads us right back to my question: Is texting the new teen road hazard?
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds and the NHTSA reports that last year, 16 percent of all drivers involved in fatal accidents attributed to distracted driving were younger than 20, and 12 percent were in the 20-29 age group. That’s more than a quarter of all fatal accidents in which distracted driving was a factor.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the results were some of the verbatim comments recorded by the researchers. While some teens demonstrated an understanding of the risks involved, others did not:
“I try not to, but at a red light, it’s a lot easier” said one high school boy. “And if I do text while I’m driving, I usually try to keep the phone up near the windshield, so if someone is braking in front of me or stops short, I’m not going to be looking down and hit them.”
Said one high-school aged boy: “I think it’s fine…And I wear sunglasses so the cops don’t see [my eyes looking down].” Likewise, another high school-aged girl wrote that she texts “all the time,” and that “everybody texts while they drive (…) like when I’m driving by myself I’ll call people or text them ‘cause I get bored.”
It's also pretty clear that teens are taking their cues from their parents:
One middle school-aged girl wrote: “I don’t really get worried because everyone does it. And when my mother is texting and driving I don’t really make a big deal because we joke around with her about it (cuz she’s a crazy driver) but we don’t take it so serious.”
Another 9th/10th grade boy said “Yeah [my dad] he drives like he’s
drunk. His phone is just like sitting right in front of his face, and
he puts his knees on the bottom of the steering wheel and tries to
The news isn't all bleak. Some teens clearly articulated the danger of texting while driving:
One high school boy was asked about riding with drivers who text: “Not if they know what’s good for them. I’ll snatch the phone out of your hands – don’t be driving in the car with me and doing that…I want to live until the end of this car ride.”
"I want to live until the end of this car ride."
How can we make sure that more teens, and most especially our own teens, learn to say no to texting and other distracting cell phone use while driving.
Emily McKhann and Cooper Munroe, co-founders of online community The MotherHood.com, have started a public service campaign to educate people about the dangers of distracted driving, Mom Sends the Msg.
At their site, I learned about Dnt txt & drv, a terrific education program in North Carolina aimed at helping teens understand the dangers posed by texting while driving. The students have to navigate a series of traffic cones while driving a golf cart and texting. As reported in the Charlotte Observer, they are surprised by how poorly they perform, but the message hits home:
"I don't think I could ever trust myself to text and drive," Jenna
Siffringer, a junior at Cox Mill High School, said after she finished
the course Thursday. "It was definitely hard to focus."
The students also watch a harrowing 4-minute clip that depicts a terrible, fatal crash caused by distracted driving while texting. The clip, which went viral earlier this fall, is part of a longer film commissioned by the Gwent Police Department in South Wales. It is a fictional account, but very realistic due to the involvement of the Police Department and actual emergency service vehicles and personnel. If you have teens who text and drive, this clip is as important as any drunk driving PSA they can watch on American TV.
Because, really, the first step begins at home. We have to model the behavior we want our children to have. Fellow Digital Parenting editor Gina Carroll is already down that path, and reports:
I have been working hard at breaking my cell-phoning-while-driving habit. When I made my no texting/no talking commitment, I had to go cold-turkey. Cutting out texting was easy. But staying off of the phone and just driving was weird at first. I kept feeling like I was supposed to be doing something else.
Me? I'm trying hard to leave the phone in my bag, in the back seat and letting it ring while driving. I'm really trying.
What about you? What are you doing to change your cell phone behavior while driving to set a good example for your kids? It's never too early to start. After all, you'll be safer keeping your eyes on the road and off the dialer too.
And if you have teens, how are you talking to them about cell phone use while driving?
Susan Getgood is a marketing and social media consultant. She blogs professionally at Marketing Roadmaps and also writes a personal blog Snapshot Chronicles and a family travel blog Snapshot Chronicles Roadtrip. She is a co-founder of BlogwithIntegrity.com, and recently started work on her first book.
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