When teen drivers take their hands, eyes, or thoughts off the road, their risk of injury – or worse, death – greatly increases.
Yet teens are more likely to get distracted than other age groups when driving. Eleven percent of drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash, according to Distraction.gov.
“Teens tend to be more distracted when driving than adults because they don’t have the experience and they always think, ‘it won’t happen to me,’” says Lauren Galley, president of Girls Above Society, an organization that provides mentorship and awareness to teen girls facing the pressures of today’s society.
Here are six common distractions for teen drivers, along with guidelines to stay focused while behind the wheel.
1. Talking on the phone.
Twenty-one percent of distracted drivers between the ages of 15 and 19 who were involved in fatal crashes were distracted by the use of cellphones, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Fortunately, instilling simple habits can help curb the tendency to reach for the phone. As a parent, you can set an example for your teen by not talking on a cellphone when you’re in the driver’s seat. In addition, “Don’t call or text your teen when you know he or she is driving,” says William Van Tassel, manager of driver training operations at AAA.
When you talk on the phone, your eyes might be on the road, but your mind can wander away from the task of driving – parents should emphasize this to their teen. Taking that mental focus off the road puts drivers at high risk for making mistakes, such as missing road signs or stoplights. Those errors can result in collisions and fatal crashes.
Parents should prohibit their teens from using cell phones while driving, according to Nationwide. If your child must use a phone while on the road, he should pull over, find a safe place to park, and then make the call.
Various apps and electronic devices can also help teens fight the urge to chat while driving. One of these, Sprint Drive First, automatically sends incoming cellphone calls to voicemail when it detects a vehicle is in motion.
Drivers who text while driving are 23 times more likely to be involved in a car crash, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
DoSomething.org, a nonprofit organization for young people and social change, has worked to spread the word about texting and driving to teens in an encouraging, positive way. In 2013, it teamed up with Sprint and Toyota and launched a campaign called Thumb Wars. The socks served as a visual reminder to help teens not text while driving. Teens who received the socks were encouraged to take pictures of themselves wearing them and share the images with their friends.
“Teens are the number one influencer of teens,” says Naomi Hirabayashi, chief marketing officer at DoSomething.org.
3. Other passengers.
Risky behaviors among 16- and 17-year-old drivers involved in fatal crashes increased when teen passengers were present, according to a study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. These behaviors included speeding, late-night driving, and alcohol use.
To reduce these risks, AAA recommends limiting the number of teen passengers for new drivers to zero. A parent-teen driving agreement might help enforce this policy. A parent-teen driving agreement includes guidelines that both the teen and parents agree to follow, as well as the consequences if the agreement is broken.
In the agreement, the parents and teen might decide to keep the number of teen passengers at zero during the teen’s first months of driving. At a later date, if other guidelines such as not driving at night and not bringing alcohol into the car are followed, the number of teen passengers allowed could increase.
AAA’s interactive tools help show the impact that the number of teen passengers has on driving safety when a teen is behind the wheel.
Adjusting a baseball cap or putting on makeup may seem easy to do from the driver’s seat – especially for those that wake up minutes before leaving the house and don’t want to be late for school or an early sports practice. However, grooming in the car can take the driver’s eyes, hands, and focus off the road. If a teenager, distracted by grooming while traveling at a high speed, gets into a crash, it could be fatal.
Galley has some advice for teens who groom in the car: “Get up early enough to make sure you’re ready and don’t have to do that in the car.”
5. Eating and drinking.
Teens can be easily influenced by their parents’ driving habits. According to a study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., if a teen thinks his parent eats and drinks while driving, the teen is three times more likely to do the same.
For parents, “be a good role model,” Dr. Van Tassel says. Keep food out of the car, and encourage teen drivers to eat before getting in the car, at a stop along their route, or at their final destination.
The type of music teens listen to can impact their distraction levels. Teenage drivers who played their preferred music had more traffic violations compared with background music designed by researchers to reduce distracted driving, or no music at all, according to a study by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
“Different music is meant for different things,” says Warren Brodsky, director of music science research at Ben-Gurion University. Drivers listening to tunes with loud, aggressive, and rhythmic pounding might find it difficult to react quickly. Teens that keep the volume at a reasonable level will be able to hear other essential noises, such as car horns and ambulance sirens, while driving.