How to keep teen drivers’ eyes on the road, and their fingers off the keyboard

Getting the message through is important: A high proportion of teen car crashes involve distracted driving. So a “multi-pronged” strategy is underway.

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Side View Of Young Woman Using Mobile Phone While Driving Car


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Most of us know that using our phones while driving is bad, yet a lot of us do it anyway. I’m guilty myself, much too often.

So are a lot of teenagers, who are still inexperienced on the road. About 60 percent of teen car crashes involve distracted driving.

The problem is on the rise, which is concerning. So I wanted to find out some things people are doing to address it.

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Make the consequences feel real

On a hot spring day, I drive to Lehighton, Pennsylvania, an hour and a half north of Philadelphia, where the local high school is running a program on the dangers of driving distracted.

As I walk into a dimly limit auditorium, I see teens practicing driving simulations on computers hooked up to electronic steering wheels and brakes.

One scenario goes like this: You have to pick up a friend who is late for work. The friend’s phone has just been stolen, so he asks you to text his boss for him.

All the while, there are cars merging and jaywalking pedestrians. It’s a hectic scene. Quite a few students get into accidents.

If you get into a minor crash, numbers flash across the screen: That will be $250 for a traffic ticket, $2,800 for auto repairs, a spike in insurance — and 600 hours of work to pay it all off.

If you get into a major crash, a video starts to play. You see an emergency helicopter. Faces from a medical evacuation team hover on the screen. They look down with concerned expressions.

Cierra Kunkle at the Lehighton distracted driving workshop (Steph Yin/WHYY)

One emergency responder reports that there seems to be no movement or sensation below the waist.

“I think this’ll be a code red,” another one says.

Finally, you end up in a courtroom.

“You are charged with crimes of recklessly endangering another person in accidents involving death or serious bodily injury,” a judge says. “This is a felony, that carries up with it up to seven years in prison.”

Bill McQuilken, who works for the Lehigh Valley Health Network, a regional group of hospitals, has run these simulations since 2008, training about 60,000 students in total. The program is designed to hammer home for teens the consequences of distracted driving, he says.

“They’re surprised by the consequences. We hear just from everything in society, ‘Don’t drink and drive, don’t drink and drive, the consequences are bad.’ But they don’t hear that, ‘Oh, if I pick up my cell phone or use some apps, the consequences are that bad.’ ”

In fact, the consequences are bad, McQuilken says: Students could injure themselves or somebody else, kill themselves or somebody else, or possibly land behind bars.

Students doing distracted driving simulation Bill McQuilken/ Lehigh Valley Health Network

Take a multi-pronged approach

Honestly, I wonder about the long-term impact of the simulation training. I mean, teens are notoriously fast-moving. Maybe the message sinks in today, but within a couple weeks? They’re onto the next thing.

So I meet up with Kate McDonald, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing and a researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

McDonald studies how to reduce teen car crashes, and she says in-school training is just part of a broader landscape.

“We’re thinking about the multi-pronged approach,” she says. “From the policy level, we see states individually will have cellphone bans.”

Today, 48 states ban texting and driving. However, just 18 states ban all hand-held phone use while driving — which advocates say is more effective. For instance, a ban on texting only doesn’t cover social-media use, which can be just as distracting.

There’s also a role for cultural campaigns that introduce stigma around phone use while driving.

“What we’ve seen to be successful in getting people to use seat belts, or reducing cigarette use, we want to be able to shift that over to reducing distracted driving and changing the social norms around what’s acceptable and what’s not,” McDonald says.

That includes campaigns built around personal stories, the sort of thing Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) started doing in the 1980s. Today, there are grassroots groups like PADD — People Against Distracted Driving. And MATT, Mothers Against Texting and Talking while driving.

But perhaps the most coordinated public campaign against phone use while driving is from AT&T, one of the biggest cellphone companies. It’s recruited celebrities to spread this message: “It can wait.”

Kate McDonald showing how to use the driving simulator (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia)

Study the problem

Researchers around the world are trying to better understand the problem, in hopes of finding solutions.

In her own research, McDonald has interviewed a lot of teens, and gleaned some takeaways about how to talk with new drivers.

One lesson is specificity. If we want to address all the ways teens are using their phones, we have to make sure we’re asking them the right questions.

“So for example, when we ask them, ‘What do you think about texting and driving?’ they would tell us, ‘Well, reading a message at a stop light, that’s not really texting and driving,’ ” McDonald says.

That’s a dangerous misconception, she says.

Another lesson is that parents can play a crucial role in setting expectations. When the phone rings in the car, it’s often a parent or guardian calling. Teens feel pressured to answer that call, McDonald says.

“So that’s a way we can message to parents and teens about having rules,” she says, “in that if parents were to call while teens are driving, they don’t need to answer that phone. They can wait until they’re at their final destination before responding.”

Plus, parents are guilty of distracted driving, as well. One national survey found that 56% of parents use their phones while driving — with kids in the car.

“We worry about that from two fronts,” McDonald says. “If someone’s using their cellphone while driving, it can place them at risk for a crash and injury to all the occupants of the vehicle. In addition, they’re modeling risky behavior for that child that’s in the back seat watching.”

Finally, McDonald has collaborated with other researchers to study the effectiveness of technological solutions. How can we build features into phones and cars to reduce phone use? Think, for example, of how your car dings when you don’t wear your seat belt.

Some smartphone apps track driving behavior and try different tactics to get people to drive more safely. A couple family-friendly apps include EverDrive and TrueMotion Family.

Some apps allow parents to follow along when a teen is driving. Some are like games, inviting family and friends to compete with one another. Others offer discounts on insurance. One that I tried asked me to upload a photo of a loved one, which would come up on my screen whenever I drove, as a reminder of what’s at stake.

Setting up “Do Not Disturb While Driving” can cut down on distractions behind the wheel. (Image courtesy of _ Kit Delgado)

There’s also a super-easy tool built right into smartphones. The “Do Not Disturb While Driving” setting prevents calls and messages from coming in, unless the sender says it’s an emergency — which will likely “reduce the temptation to then respond to messages,” McDonald says.

And, it’ll send an auto-reply to anyone who tries to contact you, so you don’t have to worry about leaving people hanging.

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