Reaching for a soft drink in the center console doesn’t seem like dangerous behavior. Neither does chatting with a friend in the passenger seat or thinking about that big test that’s coming up tomorrow. But when your teenager is at the wheel of their car those actions and hundreds of others equally innocuous can be potentially life-threatening.
The statistics on the dangers of driving distractions are stark. In 2017, the most recent year for which we have reliable statistics, distracted driving was a factor in crashes that killed 3,166 people. That means that distraction was reported in 8.6% of all fatal crashes, and safety experts believe that many instances of distraction-caused accidents go unreported.
Teen drivers are more likely than the average driver to be involved in a distracted-driving-related crash. Some 297 people died in crashes that involved distracted teen drivers, and 271 teen drivers involved in fatal crashes were distracted, according to statistics from 2017. That means that distracted driving is a leading cause of death among American teens.
When you read that, it is likely that you immediately think of mobile phone use, and that is a major cause of distracted driving. But if you limit your teen’s mobile phone use without monitoring and preventing other forms of distraction you are doing your teen a disservice. According to Truce, a software company that has developed applications that help professionals drive more safely, there are three overall types of driver distraction. Understanding what they are can go a long way to helping your teenager driver avoid them and become a safer driver.
Anything that can take a driver’s eyes from the road even for a split-second by changing their visual focus can be classified as a visual distraction. Something outside the vehicle — an advertising sign, an animal or an attractive person — might catch the driver’s eye. Or it might be something inside the vehicle, anything from looking for a dropped pair of sunglasses to watching a YouTube video to viewing a text message. Visual distractions can occur at any time from any one of a million sources.
A manual distraction involves the driver taking their hands off the steering wheel. As you can guess, there can be a giant number of reasons for this. It may be something as simple as changing the radio station, lowering the volume, or altering the setting on the climate control. It might involve reaching down to pick up a travel cup filled with coffee, fast-food sandwich or some loose change rattling in the cup holder. Manual distractions can, of course, be combined with visual distractions. You reach down to find something, but your hands don’t grasp it, so then you look down in an attempt to find it — all the while your car is hurtling down the road at potentially life-taking speed.
Cognitive distractions are less obvious than visual or manual distractions but they can be equally destructive. A cognitive distraction is something that keeps a driver’s mind from being focused on driving. One simple description of this phenomenon is “daydreaming.” You are doing one thing — driving a car — but your mind is elsewhere, thinking about something other than driving. You might recently have had an argument with a girlfriend or boyfriend; you might have felt let down by a parent; you might be thinking about the big dance coming up on Saturday night. Hands-free mobile phone use can trigger cognitive distractions, because the driver might concentrate attention on the phone call while neglecting driving duties. Whatever it is that captures the driver’s attention can be dangerous, because the driver’s first and only obligation should be to pilot the vehicle safely. Everything else should be so secondary that it doesn’t cause a ripple in your attention on the road.
Teen Victims to all these Distractions
Sadly, teen drivers are more likely than other drivers to succumb to all three types of driving distractions. The ubiquitous cellphone is a major cause of in-car distraction for teens. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), one in three teens who text say they have done so while driving. Numerous studies have shown texting while driving is highly distracting and dangerous, increasing the risk of having a crash by 23 times. The seemingly innocuous act of dialing a phone number increases a teen’s risk of crashing six times.
Yet, teens, feeling the seeming invulnerability of youth, seriously underestimate the potential for harm that texting-while-driving has. “A lot of teens think they’re better drivers than they actually are, and inexperience along with unnecessary risk taking while behind the wheel leads to disaster for this group of individuals,” said Randy Petro, chief claims officer for Mercury Insurance. A recent NHTSA survey found 20% of drivers ages 18-20 said texting does not affect their driving, and nearly 30% of drivers ages 21-34 said texting has no impact on their driving safety. Since significant percentages of teen and young adult drivers feel they can safely text and drive, is it any wonder that many participate in this behavior — often with tragic consequences.
But while the mobile phone is vilified as a major source of teen driver distraction, it is far from the only source of distraction. Further, it might not even be the most dangerous source.
A study that monitored the behavior of young drivers from 16 to 19 years old for a six-year period found the top reason for distracted driving among teens was not due to mobile phone use, but rather from passengers in the vehicle. Drivers were six times as likely to have a serious incident when there was loud conversation in the vehicle and were more than twice as likely to have a “high g-force event” (sudden stop, near miss or accident) when there was horseplay or other passenger-instigated in-car distraction.
A NHTSA analysis of accident data found teen drivers are two-and-a-half times more likely to engage in potentially risky behaviors when driving with one teenage peer compared to when driving alone. The research further shows the risk of a fatal crash goes up in direct relation to the number of teenagers in the car. In response to these stark statistics many states have instituted graduated driver’s licensing laws that prohibit recently licensed drivers from transporting passengers in their vehicles.
What to Do About It
One thing that is clear from all the sobering statistics — teen drivers are at risk. What is somewhat less clear, but abundantly important, is that parents of teen drivers have the responsibility to model good driving behavior and set clear limits on their teens’ conduct. Those are the most important things they can do to ensure their teens’ safety behind the wheel.
“We see too many claims related to distracted driving, including parents adjusting the infotainment system, even taking photos while driving, and this is the example they’re setting for their teens. The first thing parents need to do is practice what they preach. Teenagers won’t always be receptive to ‘because I say so’ or ‘because I’m the adult,’ especially if they witness their parents actively engaging in a behavior they’re told is bad,” Petro said.
When you drive you should have your eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, and put full attention on the task at hand. If, on the other hand, you take phone calls, engage in deep conversations with passengers, and frequently turn your attention away from the road while driving, you are creating a poor example your child will almost surely emulate.
While many shy away from setting boundaries for their children these days, parents who don’t set driving boundaries for their children do so to the teens’ detriment. Good strong rules can keep your teens safe.
One logical step is banning mobile phone use when your teen is driving. NHTSA has found that using a phone behind the wheel, whether for texting, voice calls, social media or other uses, has the biggest potential for causing distraction while driving. This is because it combines all three forms of distraction, manual, visual and cognitive, Truce said.
At the same time, when the law allows your teen to transport others, closely monitor the potential passengers. It might not make you popular with your teen that day, but it is an important technique in protecting their safety.
It is important to understand teens gain driving skill through practice. Learning to do something well requires repetition. Your teen driver will benefit from practice sessions with you in the passenger seat. It is a terrific way to monitor their progress and influence their driving habits in a positive way. Riding along with your daughter or son will enable you to point out the dangers of distractions and give them techniques for avoiding them.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, nine people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in crashes involving a distracted driver in the United States each day. “No Instagram post, bite of a burger or playlist selection is worth a life. People are mainly in a car to get from point A to point B, and our wish is for them to do it safely,” Petro said. You don’t want your daughter or son to be among them.