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Want safe teen drivers? Put your own phone down now, expert says

Posted August 10, 2015
Updated August 11, 2015

Here are some numbers that probably won't surprise anybody who has spent some time with a teenager lately: According to AAA, nearly 70 percent of teens admit to talking on the phone while driving in the last 30 days.

More than 50 percent say they've been texting while driving during the same period.

It should also come as no surprise, especially after the sobering news stories of the last several years, that motor vehicle deaths are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But here's another fact, according to Kathryn Egan, injury prevention coordinator in the trauma program at UNC HealthCare: They can be prevented. Six out of 10 teen crashes involve driver distraction, Egan said.

"The leading cause of a lot of those really has to do with being distracted," she said. "A lot of it has to do with just really not paying attention."

Egan works with groups, including teens, to highlight why it's so important to truly focus on driving when they are behind the wheel.

"Teens are invincible by nature," she said. "So, there’s a little more risk-taking behavior, which is pretty normal for that age range."

But she said it's important to talk about how certain behaviors are risky, and why it's so important to pay attention to the road.

When she speaks with teens, Egan drives the point home with a discussion on multi-tasking. Already, drivers are multi-tasking when they're behind the wheel. They're using their cognitive abilities to pay attention and make rapid decisions based on what the car in front of them is doing. The act of driving with hands on the wheel and foot on the pedal uses motor functions. And drivers are using their vision to see what's all around them.

Those same functions - cognitive, motor and vision - are required when sending a text.

"Really, it's multitasking in the same lanes of the brain, and that's just overdrive," Egan said.

Likewise, Egan said, it's critical for all drivers to focus on what they're doing regardless of whether you're doing everything right.

"When you’re behind the wheel of the car, you can follow every rule in the book and that’s wonderful, but that doesn't mean that someone else follows every rule in the book. You have to drive for yourself and everybody else on the road," she said.

How can parents drive home the point of not texting and driving (besides watching some pretty effective ads and public service announcements, including the recent one by AT&T, which I've linked below)?

Egan has three tips:

1. Practice what you preach. Put the phone down when you're driving and don't text and drive or even look at your phone if your kids are with you.

"Unfortunately, distracted driving is not fully a teen issue. It's everyone’s issue. It causes a lot of accidents every year. If parents don’t want their kids to get in an accident, they need to be models," Egan said.

In fact, Egan said parents need to start modeling this behavior long before their kids ever become old enough to drive.

2. Stop texting your child if you know he's driving. Teens often tell Egan that they're not even texting their friends when they are on the road, they're texting their parents.

"If they don’t text back or call back right away, trust that what they’re doing is the responsible thing and driving," Egan said.

3. Teach teens to assert themselves when they are a passenger in the car where the driver is texting. Sometimes people don't have the courage to stand up to a friend. Help your teen by talking with her about what to say.

For instance, have your teen offer to take that selfie, send a text, check the map, refresh a news feed or make that call so the driver can focus on the road. "It reinforces that it's not a good idea to text and drive," Egan said.

Conversations, not just a set of rules, will help hammer the message of the danger of texting and driving home with teens, Egan said.

"The more conversations that parents have with their kids that are open and not super harsh," Egan said. "Our kids listen more than we think that they do. Those messages come through a lot more than just some rules."

For more information, Egan recommends parents and teens check out information about teen driving on AAA, the National Institutes of Health, the National Safety Council and Pew Research Center's websites.

Here's that public service announcement from AT&T:


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  • Richard Mackey Aug 11, 2015
    user avatar

    auto makers need to develop something that disables hand held phones while car is running...Kids think they are above all this and that nothing will happen to them. Until mommy and daddy maybe take away the phones for a while doubt anything will change here

  • Robert Fotch Jr Aug 11, 2015
    user avatar

    Yeah right, that will work. That's like a smoking parent telling their kid not to smoke because they quit. Not going to happen!