Kids' health

Parents, hang up! Your call may be distracting your teen driver

Aug. 8, 2014 at 9:00 AM ET

Worried your child is using a cell phone behind the wheel? You're probably the one they’re talking to, according to a new study on distracted driving and teens.

New driver Brandi Eadie, 16, looks down at her cell phone to read a text message as she drives through a rubber-cone course in Seattle on Wednesday, J...
Elaine Thompson / AP
New driver Brandi Eadie, 16, looks down at her cell phone to read a text message as she drives through a rubber-cone course in Seattle in 2010 to demonstrate the dangers of phone use while driving.

Fifty-three percent of teens who reported talking on a phone while driving were chatting with mom or dad, according to a study presented Friday at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in Washington. The numbers for texting were smaller but still significant. For instance, 18 percent of all 18-year-olds— not just those who reported texting while driving— said they texted with their parents.

It’s a dilemma for parents: You want to call your child to know where she is, but you don’t want her talking to you while she’s steering a 3,000-pound machine 60 mph down the highway. And parents’ conflicting desires put teens in a bind, too.

“Teens said parents expect to be able to reach them, that parents get mad if they don’t answer their phone,” said study co-author Noelle LaVoie, a cognitive psychologist based in Petaluma, California. 

That can be dangerous. Cell phones play a large role in crashes blamed on distracted driving, especially among teens, research shows. In 2011, for example, cell phone use was blamed in 21 percent of fatal crashes that involved distracted teen drivers, according to a report by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

The researchers in the new study noted that the proportion of teens who report using cell phones while driving has risen dramatically in recent years, despite publicity about the dangers. A 2009 Pew study found 43 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds talked on cellphones while driving, but according to a 2013 survey, 86 percent of 11th- and 12th-graders reported using phones behind the wheel.

So what’s the lesson for parents? 

  • Don’t set a bad example: Don’t talk or text on a cellphone yourself while driving. A 2012 survey found that 91 percent of teens reported seeing their parents use a phone while driving. “Parents need to understand that this is not safe and emphasize to their children that it’s not normal or acceptable behavior,” said LaVoie, founder of Parallel Consulting, which focuses on applied behavioral research.
  • If you must call your teen: “Ask the question, ‘Are you driving?’ If they are, tell them to call you back or to find a spot to pull over so they can talk,” LaVoie said.
  • Mostly importantly, she said: "Have a conversation about how your teen should handle this before they're driving." Set the rules in advance, come up with alternatives to answering — such as agreeing they won't answer while driving but will pull over to call back when it's safe. 

The study, by LaVoie and co-authors Yi-Ching Lee of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and James Parker, a research associate at Parallel Consulting, interviewed or surveyed about 400 teens from 31 states about why they talk or text while driving. 

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