Teens, Driving, and Texting: A Fatal Mix

It only takes five seconds to read a text-enough time to veer into a lane of opposing traffic or hit a child chasing a ball with deadly consequences. For teens, especially, texting can be irresistible. It enables them to be constantly connected to their friends and is their main form of communication.  Sadly, a young driver's lack of driving experience combined with the distractions of using a cell phone in a car all too often turns a routine trip into death on wheels.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), motor-vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, accounting for 40 percent of all deaths. In fact, mile-for-mile teens are involved in three times as many fatal car accidents as all other drivers. In 2009, nearly 5,500 people in the U.S. were killed and almost half a million were injured in accidents that involved distracted driving.

Study after study has revealed the dangers of texting and driving. One of the most alarming was a recent Virginia Tech Traffic Institute study which found that texting increases the risk of collision by 23 percent. Still, one in three teens admit to texting while driving. And it's not just texting that endangers lives. Another study out of the University of Utah examined reaction times and found that the reaction time of a teen talking on a cell phone is the same as a 70-year-old driver who isn't using a phone.

Other recent studies have compared DWT-driving while texting-to the dangers of driving while intoxicated (DWI). DWT is double the danger. Teens are four times more likely to get into an accident if they drink and drive but eight times more likely crash if they text and drive. Many experts now believe the cell phone is the most dangerous hazard on the road today.

Still, there is no national ban on cell phone use while driving though many states have implemented restrictions regarding cell phone and cars. The laws vary but currently 29 states (including DC) ban all cell phone use for novice drivers, usually classified as those under the age of 18 or drivers holding a learners permit or provisional license. In eight states, texting is specifically banned for novice drivers. Of course there are exemptions. For example, some states allow cell phone use while the car is parked or stopped and in neutral.

Teach Your Teen to Focus on the Road

To keep your teen and fellow drivers safe, here are tips from experts on what to say and do:

1. Set a good example. Your own behavior is a powerful teaching tool. Children learn best by observing you. If your teen sees you using a cell phone while operating a car, you are condoning that behavior. Show your child you take the risk of causing an accident seriously by putting your phone on silent mode before you get into the car. Or, if you're expecting an urgent call, pull off the road to take it. And never, never text while you drive.

2. Talk to them. Find out what's in their head. Patricia Pitta, Ph.D, clinical and board-certified family psychologist explains that important parts of the adolescent brain, those related to risk and decision making, are still developing, so it's important for parents to know how their teen thinks. "Have a conversation. Ask if/then questions to gain insight and check comprehension. Teens who are more aware will likely realize it's impossible to concentrate on two things at the same time, etc. Others don't make the connection," explains the New York-based expert. "Find out where they stand first so you can correct any lack of judgment."

3. Scare them. If they don't seem to get it, employ some scare tactics. "There are plenty of disturbing public service announcements available on You Tube and at www.distraction.gov," says Pitta. "Watch the PSAs with them and answer their questions."

4. Establish ground rules. Tell you teen there will be consequences for using a cell phone while driving. Agree on penalties for violating the rules. "Unfortunately, acting out and being impulsive is part of being a teenager so they may be resistant at first," Pitta explains.

5. Show them how to resist the urge to text. Putting the phone on silent mode or storing it in the glove compartment are good habits to get into. "I know of parents who have purchased stick-shift vehicles for their child's protection since it's impossible to handle a cell phone while driving this type of car," Pitta says.

6. Look into technology or other options that make driving and cell phones safe. There is software available for cell phones that helps ensure their safe and legal use. Phones can be programmed to automatically suppress incoming emails and texts and respond that a person is driving and unavailable.


U.S. Department of Transportation

For brochure about talking to teens about the dangers of DWT, visit:  

The National Highway Safety Administration

Federal Communications Commission

Automobile Alliance

Interview with Patrician Pitta, Ph.D clinical and board certified family psychologist based in New York

Texting While Driving