Who’s More Likely to Text and Drive – Teenagers or Their Parents?

texting while driving
By Ben Hartwig
27 June, 2019

When children are young, it’s adorable to see them imitate their parents: little boys wanting to shave alongside Dad and little girls swinging a tennis racket like Mom. That glow of pride fades when kids begin to reflect some less-stellar behavior, whether it’s sloppiness or being late to everything.

Some behavior kids learn from their parents can be chalked up to personality quirks but others, like aggressive driving or disregarding red lights, need to be corrected. Teens are historically in the highest risk group for auto accidents, and such accidents are the leading cause of death for the age group.

Study on Mobile Phone Use While Driving

Six teens ages 16-19 die per day and hundreds more are injured in auto accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Nine people in the U.S. die per day, on average, as a result of distracted driving. And an American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety study used in-car cameras to determine that 60 percent of teen driving accidents were the result of distracted driving, but that’s not all: there’s further evidence that the problem with teen cell phone use while driving is significant.

As the least experienced drivers, teens are likely to make errors behind the wheel when they are distracted. That’s why a majority of states have laws that limit teen driving to certain hours, may prohibit junior operators from driving with friends in the car, and often ban cell phone use by young drivers. More than three dozen states also limit or prohibit hand-held phone use by all drivers because they are documented as hazardous for any driver to use. 

Learning Through Imitation

According to psychiatric specialists, children learn not only how to accomplish tasks by watching their parents but they also learn their parents’ behaviors in the process. That means that a child who is learning to drive will not only absorb and imitate the process of starting a vehicle and putting it into gear but will also mimic the parent’s behavior of checking mirrors before pulling into traffic or adjusting the seat to a comfortable position. New drivers are also likely to subconsciously follow a parent’s lead in either turning off and stowing a cell phone while at the wheel or checking it obsessively even when driving.

In Ford’s Parents Supervised Driving Program, an instruction booklet for those teaching their children to drive, modeling good driving habits and behaviors is emphasized. “Set a good example,” it says, including refraining from texting or using a cell phone while at the wheel. Staying focused on the task at hand is also important, so talking to a teen about grades or his friends while driving is also discouraged.

Distractions other than cell phones include:

  • Having friends in the car;
  • Eating while driving, or
  • Applying makeup or grooming.

car accident

Studies of experienced drivers (adults) show that drivers are aware that distractions can cause accidents but they don’t change their behavior. Even taking one’s eyes off the road for two seconds doubles the risk of crashing, according to one source, but one in 20 drivers continues to use hand-held cell phones and to engage in other distracted driving. 

Self-reported Distracted Driving

More than half of teen auto accidents are related to distracted driving, studies show, and the rate of teen cell phone use varies by geographic location.

The American Association of Family Practitioners, a medical society, surveyed teen drivers and found that one-third of teens texts on a cell phone while driving. The survey of more than 100,000 teen drivers revealed that 40 percent texted while driving sometimes, and over 15 percent texted frequently while driving. Yet the survey was criticized for not tallying other distractions like downloading, watching videos, and looking for music on phones while driving, all of which can be significant distractions.

Teens in rural mountain states like South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska reported texting or emailing while driving closer to 50 percent of the time while their peers in urban areas like Maryland were less likely to do so.

Worse than the driving and texting numbers, the survey showed that older teens (age 18 and above) were more likely to engage in distracted driving as well as more likely to participate in other forms of dangerous motor vehicle operation like driving under the influence and not wearing a seat belt. Because alcohol and drug use is known to reduce inhibitions, it’s likely that teens who are inclined to drink and drive would be more tempted to reach for a phone when operating a motor vehicle after imbibing, accelerating the likelihood of a dangerous situation.

Parents Set the Stage

The physician’s group’s assessment of the survey results says that doctors not only should discuss the dangers of distracted driving with the teens they see but should also emphasize to parents the importance of being a good role model behind the wheel.

parents set the stage

Tactics the physician’s group suggests parents may use to reduce distracted driving include:

  • modeling good behavior like shutting phones off when driving or muting the ringer;
  • offering a monetary incentive to leave a teen’s phone at home;
  • seeking out new car options like Ford’s MyKey option that allows a parent to set speed controls and to enforce seat belt use;
  • using a cell phone app like TextArrest that senses movement and blocks text messaging.

Another incentive for parents to use is legal: states are serious about reducing distracted driving. In Iowa, drivers who are involved in fatal accidents when texting can be charged with a felony and imprisoned for up to 10 years. In New Hampshire, any use of a cell phone while driving carries a financial penalty, and a third infraction can result in a two-year suspension of driving privileges.

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