Teen Drivers and Texting

In July of last year, the American Automobile Association released results of a national survey in which they found that 46 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds send text messages while they’re driving. While the number of teens who text may be alarming, the safety hazard is far more troubling to those at AAA who conducted the survey.

Automobile accidents are the top killer of teenagers in America, so the idea of one more distraction while they’re behind the wheel is disturbing. In addition, the Insurance Information Institute found that almost 30 percent of all crashes are caused by driver distraction.

Most teens think texting while driving is “no big deal.” They text so often that they can almost do it without looking. But the “almost” is the problem. According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, a car accident can happen if a driver’s attention is diverted for just three seconds. So, while teens may think they’re perfectly safe because they only look down at their phones periodically while texting, “periodically” is all it takes.

For teenagers who are just learning how to drive, there are enough distractions already, without adding the challenges of talking on a phone or texting. Though texting while driving isn’t safe for anyone, it’s especially dangerous for teenagers who are still developing attention and coordination skills.

The University of Utah conducted a study in which it found that talking on the phone while driving impairs driving ability so much that a cell-phone-using driver is as impaired as someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.08, which is borderline intoxicated.

Only two states have laws specific to text messaging – in Washington and New Jersey, it’s illegal to text and drive. But many states have cell phone laws which require the use of hands-free devices. While it’s important for teens to know and adhere to local driving laws, the law doesn’t have to be the final authority. Even in cities and states where no such laws exist, parents should restrict teens’ cell phone use while driving.

The organization Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) suggests the following list of safe driving guidelines for parents and teens:

  • Know and enforce your state’s graduated driver’s license laws and restrictions, including those relating to unsupervised driving, time of day, and number of passengers in the car.
  • Sign a teen driving contract (many are available online, including SADD’s Contract for Life).
  • Set family driving rules with clear consequences for breaking the rules. SADD recommends rules such as:
    • No alcohol or drug use• No cell phone use, including text messaging• Limit distractions – eating, changing CDs, handling iPods, or other activities while driving

    • Limit or restrict friends in the car without an adult present

SADD also recommends that parents set an example for their teenagers:

  • Don’t use your cell phone when you’re driving, unless you use a hands-free device.
  • If you receive an important call that could distract you while driving, pull over.
  • For calls that you don’t need to answer right away, let your voicemail take the call.

Simple rules like this, when followed by both parents and teenagers, can keep everyone safe (and legal) while driving.