Texting While Driving: Parents' Role in Prevention

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By Randy Craig, Editorial Manager

Distracted driving has become such a safety threat that the U.S. Department of Transportation called a summit to address the issue September 30. One of the results was a DOT promise to work with Congress to:

  • Permanently restrict the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in rail operations
  • Ban text messaging and restrict use of cell phones by truck drivers and interstate bus operators
  • Ban school bus drivers convicted of texting while driving from holding commercial driver’s licenses.

Federal action won’t solve the problem overnight. But drivers and parents of drivers can act now to reduce the dangers of distracted driving, especially texting while driving.

The problem of texting while driving is especially critical among teen drivers. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show that the age group with the greatest proportion of distracted drivers was the under-20 age group. 

David Melton, director of transportation consulting services for the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, said the first thing parents can do is discuss texting with their kids. Do they know just how much their kids text now? Melton said parents should look at the phone bill and bring the issue of texting while driving to their teens’ attention.

The most important thing parents can do—which not many parents are doing, apparently—is setting a good example for safe driving, Melton said. A Liberty Mutual Insurance survey showed that 69 percent of parents of teen drivers practice at least two dangerous or distracting behaviors while driving. Nearly half perform at least three distracting behaviors such as texting. Dads are especially guilty, as 75 percent of fathers surveyed admitted they were guilty of at least two distracting behaviors while driving.

“Young kids have seen us exhibit bad behaviors,” Melton said. “No matter what we tell them about safe driving how can they believe we’re serious about it? We must become good examples. Teens get safe driving examples from many sources but no one more than mom or dad.”

Parents can also encourage driving safety by making cell phone use practical, Melton said. Some tips on safe driving and cell phone use:

  • When you know your teen might be driving, don’t just call to visit.
  • Before starting the content of a call, ask the teen if she is driving. If she is, tell her to pull over and call her back.
  • If you need to talk to your teen, make the call short. Don’t have emotional conversations or make critical decisions over the cell phone.

Tools are available for parents to promote safe driving. The Students Against Destructive Decisions group offers a safe driving contract that parents and their children can sign to encourage safe driving.

Melton encourages parents to perform a “commentary drive,” an exercise with their teen drivers to reinforce the dangers of texting while driving. The parent should drive with the teen in the passenger seat and take an unfamiliar route. The teen should start texting and, at the same time, describe two things:

  • what he or she sees
  • how he or she would respond.

Parents should pay attention to the potential hazards the child is missing—a hidden driveway, children playing near the street, etc.—and point them out to the teen.

“Everybody think they can multitask. Research proves we’re not as adept as we think,” Melton said.

PTAs can encourage driving safety by linking parents with these tips and safe driving tools, Melton said. They can also advocate “intolerance” for texting while driving and other distracted driving behaviors exhibited by school bus drivers or other employees on school business.

“Most experts agree make that you make more decisions while driving than at any other time of the day. To slow down, to speed up involves multiple decisions and you make hundreds and hundreds of decisions every mile,” Melton said. “If any of those decisions are made or not made while distracted they can indeed lead to an emergency where you may get out of it or you may not.”

What about driver education and training? Melton said there really isn’t much more education that can be done, as safe driving training is fairly prevalent and readily available. The key is making safe driving a habit and an expectation.

“I really believe that people know how to drive safely but they choose not to,” he said. “If they choose not to you don’t have a training problem you have management problem. And in a family guess who the managers are? Mom and dad.”