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Distracted driving warnings aren’t reaching teens, studies say

Distracted driving warnings

Are distracted driving warnings being issued to teens effective?

While the number of accidents and deaths due to distracted driving continues to climb, studies are showing that the message about the dangers of distracted driving is not getting through to the one group most at risk: teens and young adults.

March is distracted driving month in Canada, with federal and provincial police services setting up campaigns to promote awareness of distracted driving. This week the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) launched its crackdown on distracted driving, reporting that in 2015 more people were killed by distracted driving on Ontario’s roads than by any other factor. According to OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes, 69 deaths last year resulted from distracted driving, as compared to 61 speed-related deaths, 51 seatbelt-related deaths and 45 alcohol-related deaths.

“If you are texting, talking on your cellphone or pre-occupied with other activities while behind the wheel, you are not driving safely,” says Hawkes. “It does not suffice to keep your eyes on the road. Driving involves sharing space with drivers, their passengers, motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians and it is impossible to do so safely unless your eyes and mind are solely focused on driving.”

But recent studies indicate that curbing risky driving behaviour is a serious challenge, especially for teens and young adults. One study looked at rules and limits placed on teens’ driving behaviours -concerning cell phone use, passengers, driving times and driving routes- and found that teens consistently believed there to be fewer limits on their driving than reported by their parents.

“We know teen drivers are vulnerable to distractions while driving and that they are also at the highest risk for crashes. Parents play a key role in promoting the safety of their teens by setting expectations for driving,” says the study’s lead author, Michelle L. Macy, M.D., M.S., of the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

According to Macy, the divergence between parents’ and teens’ perceptions of limits on driving shows that more work needs to be done in communicating the dangers of distracted driving to teens. “This signals an opportunity for parents and teens to have more conversations about safe driving habits,” says Macy.

It turns out, though, that having successful conversations about distracted driving is a challenge in itself, as often teens think differently about what they’re doing when driving than what their parents (and others) might think.

One study conducted interviews with 16 to 18-year-olds to hear their thoughts about distracted driving and found out that it’s not enough to tell your teen or young adult not to text while driving, since many teens unconsciously invoke an elaborate classification system about their electronic communication. For example, checking Twitter while driving is for some teens not the same as texting while driving. For others, whether it’s okay to respond to a text while driving sometimes depended on who had sent it.

The study’s co-author, Marilyn Sommers, professor of Medical-Surgical Nursing at Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, argues that research has shown that simply laying down rules for teens (“do this, don’t do that”) rarely works. Instead, parents and organizations concerned with distracted driving need to see things from their teens’ perspective to learn more about what’s important to them – and then they need to work with both teens and young adults to figure out the safest approach to get them where they need to go. “We need to partner with them to get to the same end point, to keep people safe, to improve their health,” says Sommers.

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About The Author /

Jayson MacLean
Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.

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