Distracted Teen Drivers: Are Parents Part of the Problem?

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When teens begin to drive, parents often worry themselves to distraction in an attempt to keep their kids out of car accidents. Yet, when it comes to preventing cell phone use behind the wheel, parents may be causing more problems than they solve.

That’s because parents are the number-one group of callers teens talk to while they drive, according to a new study presented to the American Psychological Association.

The study followed 408 teenagers, asking them if they take phone calls or text behind the wheel, and if so, with whom. Fifty-three percent of the teens in the study reported that when they take a phone call in the car, it’s Mom or Dad they’re talking to. Meanwhile, teens were most likely to send text messages to friends, the researchers found.

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Why (and How) Are Parents the Problem?

For many of these teenagers, “no cell phone use while driving” is a household rule. So why do the teens answer when Mom or Dad calls?

According to the researchers, it’s because the rule “you must answer when Mom or Dad calls” supersedes the rule “you must not talk on the phone while driving.” In fact, many of the teenagers surveyed said that if they don’t answer Mom’s or Dad’s phone call, the parent will continue to call until the teen answers – and the teen will get an earful. To avoid the distraction of the repeatedly ringing phone and the scolding from ignoring it, most teens will risk talking on the phone behind the wheel.

New York law prohibits all drivers from talking on handheld cell phones, reading or sending text messages or emails or sending photos.

Researchers say that, based on the findings, they would recommend that parents stop calling their kids when the kids are likely to be in the car. Families should also make the “do not answer while you drive” rule paramount, and have the patience to wait for young drivers to park somewhere safe before they return a call.

One other factor united the teens who talked on their cell phones as they drove: the fact that their parents do the same thing. Among teens whose parents do not talk on the phone as they drive, cell phone use behind the wheel dropped substantially.

Teen Texting: Chats With Friends Are the Culprit

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Forty-six percent of the surveyed teens reported that they talk to friends more than to parents. But when it comes to “blowing up the phone” with text messages, parents aren’t responsible: most of the teens in the study say that when they text behind the wheel they’re talking to friends, not parents.

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In another study presented at the same conference, 79 percent of college students admitted to texting friends while driving despite knowing the risks. This rate dropped when traffic was “heavy” or “high-speed” – but even in this setting, 19 percent were still texting while driving.

Cellphone Use Risks Persist, Despite Age or Confidence

The researchers in both studies concluded that young drivers are “over-confident” in their ability to multitask by using their cell phones while driving. In fact, this young group is just as likely to suffer a distracted driving crash while talking or texting as older drivers are. Eleven percent of fatal car accidents among teenagers were caused by distraction in 2013, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

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