Talking to your teens about distracted driving
Sending a text message while driving takes your eyes off the road for five seconds. That’s long enough to drive the entire length of a football field at 55 miles per hour — without looking.
Imagine a new driver in that scenario. That's terrifying and dangerous for the teen and other drivers on the road.
Distracted driving — taking your eyes off the road — is a leading cause of vehicular accidents. Common behaviors include texting, eating and drinking, talking to passengers, reading, using a navigation system and watching videos.
In 2014, 3,179 Americans died in distracted driving accidents and 431,000 were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Texting is viewed as the most dangerous behavior because it requires visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver. Teens are top offenders of this behavior. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 69 percent of drivers ages 18–64 reported they had talked on their cell phone while driving and 31 percent reported they had read or sent text messages or email while driving.
Parents can take these practical steps to help their teens resist distraction behind the wheel.
1. Enforce existing rules. The Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) designed requirements to help keep your children safe. These rules include passenger limits, nighttime driving parameters and cell phone use restrictions. Parents can help keep teens safe by knowing the rules and enforcing them for young drivers. You can find the rules on the DOL site.
2. Consider an earlier curfew. A recent study by the CDC suggests that restricting nighttime driving by teens could significantly decrease nighttime crashes, which account for about one-third of fatal car accidents involving teens in the United States.
In Washington state, teens under age 18 who have an intermediate driver license cannot legally drive between the hours of 1–5am unless accompanied by a licensed driver 25 years or older.
The CDC study suggests nighttime driving curfews of midnight or later don’t provide enough protection since more than half of nighttime crashes occurred before midnight. In other words, enforcing an earlier curfew may save lives.
3. Model safe driving behavior. The adage "do as I say, not as I do" doesn’t apply here. Parents can show teens how to avoid distraction by resisting the temptation to check phones while driving. Simply turning the ringer off or setting a smartphone to airplane mode while driving can keep your focus on the road — and on modeling safe driving behavior.
4. Frame the conversation. Five seconds may not seem like a long time to a teen. A football field is a tangible example of the length people drive when they are sending a text message and driving. We teach young people about the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol. Driving while texting is six times more dangerous than driving drunk.
The NHTSA reports approximately 660,000 drivers use mobile phones or electronic devices while driving at any given daylight moment. Campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving are addressing this important issue, but advertising and social media campaigns are only part of the solution.
Parents hold an important key to educating teens about the dangers of distracted driving.
This article was originally published in May 2014 and updated September 2016.