Research In Action

Research In Action

teen and distracted driving
What Teens Think About Cell Phone Use Behind the Wheel
October 29, 2015

Distraction from cell phone use is a major problem for our teen drivers--it raises the risk of crashing, putting themselves and others on the road in danger. We don’t know as much about how teens themselves perceive this risk, so my research team and I talked to teen drivers to hear what they had to say about things that draw their attention away from the road. We asked them a lot of questions about how and why they use their cell phones while driving.

My colleague, Dr. Lynn Sommers, and I recently published results of this study in Traffic Injury Prevention, describing teens' perceptions of inattention and cell phone use while driving. Although the study was small, involving seven focus groups with a total of 30 newly licensed teen drivers ages 16 to 18, it raised some interesting questions about what teens think about cell phone use while driving, personal accountability, and parent responsibility in helping teens manage distractions behind the wheel.

The Theory of Planned Behavior has been shown to work in other high-risk areas to change teen health behavior, including alcohol use and smoking, and we used this theoretical framework to guide our interviews and analysis. We identified teens’ attitudes, perceived behavioral control, and norms about inattention to the roadway.

What we found is that even though teens recognize that talking or texting on a cell phone or using social media apps while driving is unsafe, they often engage in these behaviors while driving. It was very encouraging to hear teens talk about ways they could manage their cell phone use while driving, including turning off the cell phone while driving or pulling over to the side of the road to take a call. However, sometimes their solutions were often unsafe as well—such as using their phones at stoplights or on familiar roads—taking their attention away from the road.

Parents will be an important part of helping teens to not use their cell phones while driving. Parents need to model safe driving behaviors by not using their cell phones while driving (including at stoplights). In addition, we need to encourage parents to set a zero tolerance policy for cell phone use in the car.

Teen drivers could also benefit from behavior change interventions that propose strategies to promote focused attention on the roadway at all times. I am working toward this goal, along with other CIRP@CHOP researchers. These interventions would provide teens with the tools to avoid using a cell phone for communication while driving and allow for a safe arrival at their destination.