Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Parents Part of Problem When Teens Drive Distracted

December 1, 2015

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Moderator’s Note: This post was authored Yi-Ching Lee, PhD, who is a Human Factors researcher and served as a Principal Investigator for the CIRP Teen Driver Safety Research team. While at CIRP, Dr. Lee’s research efforts focused on the safety and training of young adults, attention and information processing, and aging and cognitive intervention. In particular, much of her research involved laboratory testing of driver performance under various factors. As of July 2016, Dr. Lee has left CIRP to pursue her career elsewhere.

One of the major factors that increases the risk of a crash is driver impairment. Impaired driving not only includes alcohol or drug use, but also being distracted, tired, or strongly emotional. One of the most dangerous distractions is talking or texting on a cell phone while driving, but surprisingly very little research has been conducted to examine the role of social relationships in promoting this behavior. To begin to develop a theory of cell phone distraction and social relationships, my colleague, Noelle LaVoie, PhD, and I recently published research in Accident Analysis and Prevention that describes not only how often teens and adults engage in these risky driving behaviors, but also why and with whom.

We interviewed or surveyed more than 400 teen drivers, ages 15 to 18, and more than 80 adult drivers, ages 40 to 60, from 31 states to find out to whom they are talking and texting behind the wheel, despite the serious hazards of distracted driving. We then compared these results with general cell phone calling and texting patterns, as well as previous findings on the prevalence of engaging in these risky behaviors while driving.

What we found is that teen drivers receive the most calls from their parents, and adult drivers receive the most calls from their spouses-- more than general calling patterns would suggest. Why are drivers talking with the people closest to them when they are driving? It may be because they think they need to respond due to the importance of the social relationship or it could be due to the function of the call, such as schedule coordination. More research needs to be conducted to determine if driver cell phone calling patterns are influenced more by social distance or purpose; but, in the meantime, we need to encourage parents to help their teens focus attention on the road at all times.

What Parents Can Do

Parents need to model safe driving behaviors by not using their cell phones while driving (including at stoplights) and to set a zero tolerance policy for their teens’ cell phone use while driving. They should help their teens by giving them safe alternatives to talking or texting while driving like:

  • Complete any call or text before starting the car.
  • Get directions and try to visualize the destination before turning the key.   
  • Check in with friends or parents only after arrival.
  • Pull over for urgent calls.

It’s also important for parents to ask the simple question, “Are you driving?” when calling their teens. If they are, remind them that cell phone use while driving is not normal or acceptable behavior. Tell them to call back when safely pulled over or when they have arrived at their destination.

We hope that by making parents aware of their surprising role in perpetuating a preventable risk factor in teen crashes, they will refrain from calling their teens when they know they are behind the wheel. This has the potential to reduce the amount of distracted teen driving substantially.


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