KIDS
May 24, 2013

Death by Texting

Half of all teens admit to texting while driving. It's dangerous and illegal. Parents need to step up.

Summer is coming and more teens will be on the road. Most of them will follow all the traffic laws, but when it comes to texting and driving, teens still aren't getting the message.

A recent radio spot on the problem features the mother of an 8-year-old boy who was left paralyzed after he was struck by a car driven by a texting teen. What was the text that was so important it had to be sent while driving? "I am on my way."

Nearly half of high school students admit to texting while driving, according to the findings of a national survey, and that figure is likely an underestimate. The researchers think that parents hold the key to reversing this trend.

Even before texting was a driving safety issue, parents had a major impact on the driving safety of their children. Laying down ground rules, monitoring teens' phone use while in the car, and providing a supportive home environment have all been shown to lead to safer teenage driving.

How dangerous is texting while driving? One study of truckers found that texting led to a 23-fold increase in crashes or maneuvers that greatly increased the risk of a crash. Another study using a driving simulator found that texting made a driver six times more likely to crash.

Even a moment of looking away from the road can get you into trouble, especially when you are a relatively new driver.

Over 8,500 high school students 16 and up were asked if they had texted while driving during the past month and if so, how often. Forty-four percent said they had done so on at least one day; 1 in 9 (11.5%) texted every day while driving. Eighteen-year-olds (58%) were more likely to text while driving than sixteen-year-olds (33%).

Because the survey did not ask students whether or not they drove and likely included some non-drivers in the sample, and over 44% of the students admitted to texting while driving, that percentage would be even higher if the survey had included only students who drove.

So what exactly will lower the number of teens who text while driving?

Most states have laws that prohibit all drivers from texting and newly licensed teenagers from using a cell phone while driving. But there's little indication that these laws are effective or are even being enforced. A 2008 evaluation of a 2006 North Carolina law prohibiting teenagers from using cell phones while driving showed little, if any, long-term effect on teen behavior.

Someday technology may make the issue of texting while driving moot. It hasn't happened yet. There are devices on the market that block cell-phone use while in a car, but they've been beset by technical problems and have not yet proven very popular.

That leaves it up to parents and doctors. And parents get to see their children far more often than doctors do.

Even before texting was a driving safety issue, parents had a major impact on the driving safety of their children. Laying down ground rules, monitoring teens' phone use while in the car, and providing a supportive home environment have all been shown to lead to safer teenage driving. There's no reason this can't also work to discourage texting.

There are even safe driving agreements parents can have their children sign.

It's not just texting. The study found that teens who texted while driving were also more likely to drink while driving and to not wear their seatbelt. There's a general feeling of invulnerability that many teenagers have that can be quite hard to break through.

Sadly, it often takes a fellow teen or innocent bystander getting killed or seriously injured while texting or driving drunk to make the point. Parents need to get through before this happens. It starts by setting a good example--how can you expect your children not to text or use their phone while driving if you do?

Doctors, too, should take time to encourage safe driving among their teenage patients.

If there's a glimmer of hope from the study, it's that the surveys were collected in 2011. Perhaps the message has begun to be heard since then.

The study is published online in Pediatrics and will also appear in the June issue of the journal.

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