Distracted driving among teens threatens public health and safety

Insights from key investigators provide new answers, reports the Journal of Adolescent Health

Motor vehicle crashes rank as the leading cause of teen deaths and in 2008, 16% of all distraction-related fatal automobile crashes involved drivers under 20 years of age. These grim statistics, coupled with an increasing nationwide awareness of the dangers of distracted driving for all ages, prompted the publication of an important supplement to the Journal of Adolescent Health that explores the causes of distracted driving and offers practical recommendations to reduce the incidence of distracted driving among teens.

“Although public health efforts have made some progress in reducing risk of adolescent motor vehicle crashes over the last three decades, new technologies and evolving behavior patterns have focused attention on the risk of distracted driving,” observes Guest Editor C. Raymond Bingham, PhD, from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Ann Arbor, MI. “For many of the same reasons that alcohol-impaired driving represents a distinct risk for adolescents, distracted driving has an elevated impact on this age group. The unique challenge posed by the proliferation of new technological distractions may accelerate this risk behavior and may lend itself to innovative prevention efforts.”

The issues involved are not simple. While there are many different causes of distracted driving, the aim of the supplement is to take a broad view of the topic instead of focusing on the individual sources of distraction. The goal is to give researchers, practitioners, lawmakers, parents, and teens a better understanding of why distracted driving is a potentially deadly activity and steps that might be taken to reduce the number of crashes it causes.

An important issue for the public as well as legislators, former United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood comments, “This special Journal of Adolescent Health supplement brings the important issue of driver distraction and young drivers into focus. The articles presented cover a variety of the influences on young drivers’ distractibility and safety as well as the important influence of parents, peers, and technology. While there is no single (simple or quick) solution to this problem, this research can lay a substantive foundation for additional debate and informed and effective policies to address the complex problem of distracted driving among young drivers and the larger driving population as a whole.”

The supplement examines the issues surrounding distracted driving by teens, exploring developmental states and changes that are associated with adolescents’ distractibility and their relation to driving, examining patterns of distraction among newly licensed adolescents as well as brain function, considering the potential role played by parental modeling of distracted behavior while driving, accounting for the role of technology and the influence of peer passengers and society norms, and investigating policy, legislation, and intervention.

One of the ideas that the supplement highlights is that there are a multitude of complicated factors that result in teens being more vulnerable to the effects of distracted driving than other age groups. In the article “Adolescence, Attention Allocation, and Driving Safety,” by Daniel Romer, PhD, et al, the authors explore the explanations behind why teens fail to pay attention, including brain immaturity and lack of driving experience. Their review points to extensive new driver training as a way to help compensate for the unique problems teenage drivers face when it comes to focusing on the road.

Another issue the supplement addresses is what can specifically be done to prevent distracted driving among teens. “Young Driver Distraction: State of the Evidence and Directions for Behavior Change Programs,” by Lisa Buckley, PhD, et al, discusses different methods used to both educate and prevent distracted driving. While the authors argue that legislative and contextual interventions can be effective prevention strategies, they also recognize that there is an unmet need for behavioral change programs designed to pinpoint the most at-risk groups, identify their risk and protective factors, and then design effective interventions tailored to their specific needs.

Current evidence regarding laws to limit cell phone use for talking or texting that are now in place in many jurisdictions suggests that these laws are either ineffective or may have an unintended effect, according to Johnathon P. Ehsani, PhD, and co-authors in “The Impact of Michigan’s Text Messaging Restriction on Motor Vehicle Crashes.”

Dr. Bingham concludes, “In the near future, and perhaps for years to come, reducing driver distraction to increase roadway safety is going to be increasingly challenging. As automated functions increase in vehicles, drivers are likely to feel that their attention to the road is less necessary.” He continues, “Cultural attitudes and values and the public’s tolerance for distracted driving need to be targeted by informative and persuasive public health campaigns that make evident the need and create a public demand for individual behavior change.”

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Have a question? Let us know.


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19 thoughts on “Distracted driving among teens threatens public health and safety”

  1. After spending most of my time in the passenger seat of a car, I have seen how it doesn’t take a cellphone to cause a distraction. A person can get distracted many ways, from an argument in the back seat to a collision on the road. I agree with the article and most of the comments in the sense that, most teenagers are still very inexperienced when it comes to taking responsibility. When driving on the road a person is responsible for themselves and the people around them, a sudden turn or brake can cause catastrophic events. I rely on my phone more then I should and so do my friends, trying to stop a person from replying to a message is quite difficult. It has become a habit to pick up my phone as soon as i hear the message tone and I’ve see many people, not only teenagers, respond to a message or call while driving.

    I think that the article focusing on teenagers is very important, as people age they become accustomed to a certain habit. Preventing the bad habit of using a cellphone while driving should be of utmost importance because a cellphone is the biggest distraction a person posses.

  2. I too feel that at the end of the day it all boils down to responsibility. Regardless of the number of laws and procedures that are put in place in order to reduce the number of distraction that drivers have to face while on the road, all these efforts will be in vain unless the drivers are willing to abide by theses laws and to respect them.

    I also agree that ignorance plays a huge role in this. Drivers can be the most stubborn people, more especially if they are teenagers. When on the road people seem to be confined to an “it won’t happen to me” type of mentality. They believe that replying to one text, or answering one phone call couldn’t possibly do any harm, not realizing that sometimes one text or one phone call is all it takes.

    The sad part is that when driving irresponsibly teenagers seem to be oblivious to the fact that their irresponsible behavior not only puts their lives at risk but the lives of every other road user as well. The only solution to this problem is CO-OPERATION. When teenage drivers choose to start co-operating, there might actually be a noticeable change in statistics.

  3. The effectiveness of the laws that prevent the use of cell phones in automobiles is indeed questionable, and in combining this effect with the increase in the technological applications available to the teenagers it has negatively compounded effects on the road safety. It may be possible that the increase in the number of crash incidents is due to the youngsters wanting to do many things at once, i.e. multitasking. A possible solution is by sharpening and increasing the attention span of teenagers on the roads by making them aware of the consequences of distracted driving through technological means.

  4. This is definitely no new thing to us, we have seen accidents happen because of texting while driving. Tarn-14052424 is correct, the main problem is ignorance. People do not listen and they think they can break the rules without any consequences. Driving while using or texting on your phone can be compared to drunk driving because you are distracted, Multitasking is just a lie teenagers use to fool themselves into thinking they are invincible. There have been too many fatalities in our roads and too many lives lost. Studies and research cannot cure human ignorance and stupidity, it is only a matter of responsibility. This is why teenagers are not suppose to drive, because there is a 50% chance they will die. One of the sad things about teenagers is that we heard you and we understand but we are just too ignorant to care about what you say.

  5. The main problem with drivers on the road today is ignorance. Everyone hears the statistics about accidents caused by recklessness but people all think, “That will never happen to me.” No matter how good you are at multitasking the truth is you cannot be fully aware of what is happening on the road if the road does not have your undivided attention. I recently witnessed a young adult hitting a motorcyclist as a result of skipping a robot due to texting. By chance there was a police officer that witnessed the accident. She was immediately arrested and would most likely be sentenced to man slaughter. Not concentrating not only resulted in the loss of a life but also in the loss of her future. Texting as well as driving under the influence of alcohol might be the most irresponsible causes of accidents, but in fact changing the radio station and having a conversation with the passengers are also factors to be taken into consideration. Driving is not the easiest task and it should not be taken lightly.

  6. All drivers are always distracted from driving, whether it be a crying child, smoking a cigarette, changing the radio or mostly, being on the cellphone. This is a common distraction amongst adolescence as their lives revolve around their cellphone. Texting and driving is a very common reason why young adults are in vehicle accidents, because their attention is not on the road, but on the text they are sending or the conversation with the person on other end of the phone. It should be up to each young and older person to take responsibility for their actions and think about the consequences their actions will have.

    In general, being under the influence of alcohol and driving, is also one of the main reasons for fatal vehicle accidents. After a night out and alcoholic beverages, people get into their cars and drive home, without thinking that they might be at risk of causing or being in an accident. 60% of accidents caused are due to the influence of alcohol. The reason being that alcohol has an effect on our nervous system and one cannot function normally. Sadly, this occurs mostly under teens, as they are still learning that, actions have consequences. Due to a bad choice made by one person, valuable lives are lost.

    Each and every person has to make responsible decisions to try and make our roads safe and accident free.

  7. I agree with every comment so far, but I’ll generalize the problem.

    While driving, and in a perfect world, 100% of the driver’s attention should be on the road ahead, the road behind, any cross roads and all the vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians and any other thing in or next to the road. This is required to react to anything happening as quickly as possible and in the best possible way.

    Of course this almost never happens as we have our radios/music playing, we talk to passengers in the car, we use our cellphone, we light up a cigarette or we think of the day’s itinerary and this list goes on and on. By doing this we cannot allocate 100% on what we should and instantly we leave a gap for something bad to happen.

    This does not only happen to teens driving but with every other driver as well. It happened to me before that I got home and when I parked my car I realised that I couldn’t remember anything that happened on the way home, scary, isn’t it?

    I conclude that we need to be more focused when driving, and we need to think for all the other drivers around us as well. Predict their decisions and be more patient on the road. This will help to avoid many dangerous situations.

  8. I feel as though much is being asked of (from) the youth, well not necessarily asking but expectations are rising. It is expected that the youth ‘behave’ themselves while little or even no direction or discipline is given. Adding to the current issue a whole new level of freedom and responsibilities are being imposed on today’s youth; it feels as though freedom that only belongs to people of a certain age group (of mature age) is now also given to the youth (teenagers to be particular) and the same behavioural pattern is expected… Ok, maybe there are campaigns or organisations that are trying to help out but once again it is almost unfortunate that we all learn differently. Some might probably listen the first time a warning or advice is given while others might become attentive only after encountering some form of displeasure. With all this said; concerning the issue of “distracted driving among teens”: why are teenagers even being permitted to drive in the first place? I think that the focus area in response to solving this problem should begin with legislative laws in relation to teens. (14018510)

  9. Whilst reading this article, I thought went through my mind as we, the youth of South Africa should have respect for our lives and the lives of older generations; such as parents and other elders. As we know our lives are so fragile; we need to do everything possible to make a safer environment for all. We should realise that road safety has much to do with our safe driving behaviour.

    The youth of today believe that they live in a carefree world and don’t seem to be much concerned about anyone else besides themselves. With so much of modern technology today we; the youth seem to be more distracted than ever. Modern technology cause a tremendous harm and distractions, such as engaging in subtasks for instance reaching for a phone, dialling and texting this can increase the risk of been involved in an accident by the three times.

    The percentage of fatal accident caused by the youth aged 20 and below is 16 %, this meaning 16% of the youth is responsible for either “killing” a follow citizen or for a follow citizen being accommodated in hospital.

    Drinking and driving is also a major issue amongst teens. When driving under the influence of alcohol one’s vision becomes impaired. The youth believe they have enough experience to be driving when under the influence of alcohol. Yet don’t understand that their action could have a major effect on someone else life such as being involved in an accident where the other parties could lose their lives.

    In conclusion the youth of South Africa don’t realise what an impact their reckless decisions can have to follow citizens. Distracted teens don’t realise the consequences for their actions and don’t want to take responsibility of their actions. As the youth of today is so arrogant, no law that is enforced upon them will make a difference. Could there be a possibility that these statistics can change or do we as the youth of South Africa want to contribute to these statistics?

  10. Teenagers in the 21st century are more willing to take risks and ‘bend the rules’ as it is viewed as ‘cool’ by their peers. However, this is a stereotype and is not always the case for each individual as we all have different skills and habits while driving. The factors of distraction will affect each person in a different way, this all depends on the person behind the wheel.

    Alcohol is a big factor influencing an individuals driving ability as it puts themselves and others at risk as a persons mind cant function and focus with alcohol in their system. There is an increased amount of teenagers who drink more as a social activity and more easily influenced to take part in drinking. However, this applies for adults as well as they are also caught for ‘drunk driving’.

    Teenagers seem to be living a cyber world instead of reality which is a huge distraction as driving requires them to be in reality 100%. 78% of teens and young adults read a SMS while driving. However, businessmen,parents etc are also to blame as they are also influenced by cell phones as technology influences all of us and not just one age group.

    Therefore, awareness needs to be created to make people not live in a distracted cyber world but to take into account of what is happening around them.

  11. After critically analyzing this article, I have found that I agree but at the same time disagree with the main point being put across. Firstly I agree that using your cellphone whilst driving is a distraction because not only does it distract the driver from the task at hand but also endangers the people around him/her.

    However I disagree with teenagers being the focal point of the article because it clearly stipulates that they only make up 16% of all distraction-related fatal automobile crashes , implying that they are the minority. Instead, the majority includes businessman , parents, teachers and all other adults who have more driving experience than teenagers. Thus this makes up the remaining 84%.

    With all that being said , I conclude that more attention should be focused on solving the problem of the majority and not the stereotyped minority. Ultimately no matter your age or experience, your phone or any form of distraction should not be an attachment whilst driving.

  12. This is a very interesting topic for me, as I am a teenager and have only had my license for a couple of months. It is clear that motor accidents involving teenagers have increased, but why? It is obvious that a lot of distractions exist, but I would also like to say that more and more cars are manufactured and mass-produced that are faster and more dangerous than in the past. Added to this, I believe that some teenagers might feel pressurised into driving a certain way to fit in with their peer group by for example driving over the speed limit or driving with music playing too loud.

    A lot of distractions do exist, for example cell phones, loud music, eating etc. which play a big role in motor accidents. More and more devices are being produced to minimise distractions while driving for example Bluetooth devices. Another big problem I believe that also exists is drunk driving amongst teenagers. I believe, that some teenagers overestimate their alcohol tolerance and then still believe they have the ability to drive.

    With all this said, I believe every driver should take driving seriously and as a responsibility, as reckless driving can not only harm you but a lot of other people. Added to this people should be educated on the rules of driving and punished if they transgress the laws.

  13. Teenagers, cars and freedom – the perfect storm. Teenagers are often labelled as “reckless, inconsiderate and careless”. We, as teenagers are continuously trying to prove this stereotype false, however, it is incidents like the above that chain us to such stereotypes. Teenagers are known to engage in risky behaviour, it’s as if we get a sense of thrill and excitement from being reckless and adventurous. We often engage in such risky behaviour and in context, distracted driving all in the name of fun, experience and ofcourse, the infamous words, YOLO (You only live once). I find it quite amusing how this phrase is interpreted by teenagers. If you only live once, shouldn’t that promote optimal care and precaution for own’s own life? Not in the books of teenagers, no, for teenagers, this means that life is too limited to live on the safe side and to be subjective to rules and control. However, it is incredibly selfish and irresponsible to have this perception because when teenagers engage in risky and distracted driving, they pose not just a danger to themselves but for the mass of drivers. Teenagers cannot think only about themselves because it is not only them that are victims of the many accidents that happen daily. Teenagers need to realise the importance of driving safely and responsibly. No matter what distractions they are faced with, there is absolutely no excuse for endangering the lives of others. It is time teenagers take responsibilty for their actions and move away from this stereotype.

  14. This is a very interesting topic for me, as I am a teenager and have only had my licence for a couple of months. It is clear that motor accidents involving teenagers have increased, but why? It is obvious that a lot of distractions exist but I would also like to say that more and more cars are created and mass produced that are faster and more dangerous. Added to this I believe that some teenagers might feel pressured into driving a certain way to fit in with their peer group for example driving over the speed limit or driving with music too loud.
    A lot of distractions do exist for example cell phones, loud music, eating etc. which play a big role in motor accidents. More and more devices are being produced to minimise distractions while driving for example Bluetooth. Another big problem I believe also exist is drunk driving amongst teenagers. I believe that some teenagers overestimate their alcohol tolerance and then still believe they have the ability to drive.

    With all this said I believe every driver should take driving seriously and as a responsibility, as reckless driving can not only harm you but a lot of other people. Added to this people should be educated on the rules of driving and punished if not applied.

  15. As a fairly new teenage driver myself I can relate to the message of this article. Most teenagers make themselves available to various social media and technology almost 24/7 regardless of their location or situation. This behavior can be seen clearly in the nature of teenagers responding instantaneously to the ‘ring’ or ‘beep’ of their cellphone while driving. Such conduct is extremely irresponsible and selfish of drivers as it poses a direct threat to all motorists sharing the road. While this behavior might be evident in the teenage group, I am extremely confident in saying that most road users conduct such behavior, regardless of age or driving experience. In the fast tempo, on the move life we all fall victim to, people feel the need to stay connected permanently, whether it be to answer an email or receive a call. New teenage drivers have probably learnt this bad habit from observational experience in terms of seeing their parents or other adults allowing themselves to be distracted whilst driving. Although legislation is in place, it is not enforced and controlled strictly and effectively enough to be significant in combating this problem. A possible contribution to solving this problem would be incorporating mandatory Bluetooth devices into the designs of cars ensuring that the facilities are available to avoid cellular distractions. After a certain period of time, new drivers experience a confidence on the roads providing opportunities for various poor habits being instilled. It is essential that these opportunities be eradicated to prevent any further threat or damage on the roads.

  16. Most young adults spend their entire adolescence waiting in anticipation for the moment they turn 18 and legally become adults. Adulthood brings with it not only a sense of independence and authority, but also freedom and entitlement. As young drivers, I feel that carelessness inexperience lead to easy distraction while driving, rather than peer pressure and distractions due to technology. We spend hours learning how to drive, memorising the road signs and adhering to speed limits during our driving school lessons, only to forget and ignore what we have learnt once we are awarded our Driver’s License. Often we think that because we are “adults” now, we know how to handle situations and are in control. However, at the end of the day each driver should be responsible enough to value his/her life and the lives of others by being alert, focused and concentrated on the road in front of them. Only once we learn to be responsible and careful, will our roads become safer.

  17. This is an extremely interesting topic for me, as I am a teen and I have only had my licence for a couple of months. It is clear that road accidents involving teenage drivers have increased, but why? I believe that it is not only the fault of the driver but maybe even the manufacturers. We are creating and mass producing cars that have become faster and faster in the process making them more dangerous. Added to this, yes there is some peer pressure and I am sure a lot of teenagers feel pressured to drive a certain way for them to look “cool” and to be accepted in their peer group.
    There are a lot of distractions like cell phones and loud music and even blocking windows with stuffed toys. Many devices have been created minimising the risk of being distracted while driving, for example Bluetooth. Another big problem I would think exists; is drunk driving. And I do believe that teenagers sometimes think they can handle more than they really can and still think they have the ability to drive.
    Yet I believe that if you have received your licence you should look at is a responsibility, as driving recklessly can not only harm you but a lot of other people. And that people should be educated well enough to the rules of driving and punished when not applied.

  18. Teenagers like to think they are invincible,some think they can drive like Michael Schumacher .Nonetheless teenagers act inappropriate to safety regulations and laws.It is illegal to drive while being busy on your cellular phone,but people ignores it.
    The main reason is that teenagers get distracted playing loud music or with their cellular phones.
    More and more technological devices are being installed into cars which can constrain the driver’s attention to focus on the road.

    It is difficult to have a control over this quandary.
    Everyone should be educated with the basic principles for instance that you should not drink and drive.Law enforcement should be on guard to keep our road users safe from this “cancerous” problem.

  19. Legislators can work very hard to reduce road crashes caused by destructive driving but they can only do this to a certain point. Every motorist should be responsible enough to learn ways to reduce road crashes regardless of their age. Many lives are at risk on the roads because of many motorists who think of themselves as “experienced drivers”. If you are behind the wheel then please put your phone down some of us are not ready to die yet.


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