Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Opportunities to Reduce Youth Distracted Driving

May 19, 2020

new study (Flaherty et al) published in this month’s issue of Pediatrics found that in states with primarily enforced texting bans, fewer fatal motor vehicle crashes (MVCs) involving 16- to 19-year-old drivers occurred. The study, which analyzed 2007-2017 data from the US Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), also found lower incidence of fatal crashes for this age group in states with all-driver handheld device use bans.

These results are encouraging since previous research examining the association between cell phone bans and lower rates of fatal crashes in teen drivers showed mixed results. In an accompanying commentary co-authored with my CIRP/Penn colleague Kit Delgado, MD, MS, and CIRP/Brown University colleague Mark Zonfrillo, MD, MSCE, we describe further opportunities to reduce distracted driving and crashes involving adolescent drivers.

No one strategy will prevent cell phone use while driving in adolescents. It will take a multipronged approach, one that addresses the unique factors that contribute to distracted driving in teen drivers. Cell phone use is dangerous for everyone but especially for inexperienced young drivers who have limited abilities to focus their attention, control their impulses, and multitask.

Curbing cell phone use while driving among adolescents is also challenging because although many teens believe cell phone use while driving is dangerous, they still engage in this risky behavior because they feel the need to stay connected at all times. More and more research also suggests that there may be a pattern of risk-taking involved. For example, a recent Annenberg Public Policy Center/CIRP study found that teen drivers who admit to texting while driving also engage in other risky driving behaviors, such as speeding, driving too close to the car in front, and impatiently passing a car in front on the right.

Technological and Behavioral Strategies

To break the habit of cell phone use while driving, several technological and behavioral strategies show promise:

  • “Do not disturb while driving” settings can remove the temptation to use a cell phone while driving because notifications and messages are silenced while behind the wheel and can be set up to automatically come on. To increase adoption, this could be the factory default setting.
  • Applications that track driving behavior are being used by auto insurance companies to offer personalized rates for safe driving behaviors. A recent survey of 16- and 17-year-olds led by Dr. Delgado found those who admit to texting while driving may be convinced to refrain from this risky behavior if there was a financial incentive.
  • Applications that passively track cell phone use while driving give parents the opportunity to monitor their teens’ behaviors behind the wheel and to enforce house rules that prohibit cell phone use while driving for any reason and at any time.
  • Parents need to model safe driving behaviors, including no cell phone use while driving, well before their teens reach driving age.
  • Parents need to refrain from contacting their teens when behind the wheel. A CIRP/Penn School of Nursing study found that teen drivers receive the most calls from their parents.
  • Parents can provide their teens with safe alternatives to talking or texting while driving:
    • complete any call or text before starting the car
    • check in only after arrival
    • pull over to text or make a call

It is also important to remember that the refinement of existing distracted driving laws and implementation of new distracted driving laws to reduce teen motor vehicle crash fatalities and adequate enforcement need to go hand in hand. Enforcement can be challenging if states have age-specific laws or only partial bans, such as texting bans.The all-driver handheld cell phone ban may be easier for enforcement because it takes away judgement of age and how an individual is using a phone while driving. Broader countermeasures that prevent distracted driving, such as high visibility enforcement (HVE) and public health education programs, or that lessen the consequences of distracted driving, such as crash avoidance technology, are also needed.

Read the HealthDay article about the research.

Learn more about distracted driving laws

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