While each of us can educate ourselves about the dangers of distracted driving and take steps to secure our own safety, parents of teen drivers have a more complicated problem: they are responsible for supervising new drivers who are not only inexperienced and much more crash-prone than the safest drivers, but for whom electronic communication is an ingrained habit and an indispensable lifeline to friends. Parents, more than anyone else, need to understand why distraction of new drivers is so dangerous, and armed with a realistic and up-to-date perspective, must take steps to prevent electronic distraction before their teens get behind the wheel.
And so, for parents, here is a suggested game plan:
- Recognize why all teen driving -- even focused and undistracted -- is so dangerous: The human brain is not fully developed until we reach our mid-20's, and the last part of the brain that develops is the part that provides judgment and restraint. Physiologically, teens are drawn to risk-taking and largely incapable of appreciating risk. This is why, to use one study as an example, 85 percent of teens acknowledge that texting is dangerous, but 77 percent believe they can manage the risk. Electronic distraction compounds the immutable risks of teen driving.
Realize that electronic distraction is not just texting with cellphones, but the burgeoning array in newer cars of dashboard-mounted screens that offer Internet connections and invite interactivity while driving. Texting is only part of the problem.
Given the incomplete development of the teen brain and the need to cover all types of electronic communication, impose a comprehensive zero tolerance policy, and state it in a signed teen-parent driving agreement. Your teen should agree to something like, "Unless my vehicle is in Park, I will not use any electronic device to text, type, read, watch video or make a phone call."
Understand that state distracted driving laws vary widely; in about 40 states, they do not cover hands-free devices; they do not (and cannot) keep pace with changing technology; and they typically contain loopholes, such as exemptions for "audio" -- intending to allow radio but meanwhile probably exempting iPods and other gadgets that deliver music, but can still divert a driver's attention. These state laws are the minimum; parents need to impose stricter rules on their teens.
Recognize that most uses of technology leave a "cyber footprint" that parents can review to determine when a device was used. Monitoring your teen's electronic devices for use while they were driving is a form of supervision and control. Privacy concerns should not prevent use of this tool.
Don't put too much faith in "apps" that disable texting while driving. Some devices can be modified or evaded, and in any event they are the equivalent of allowing a bomb in the car because the driver has another piece of technology to disable the bomb. Why not just put the bomb in the glove box before the ignition is turned on?
Recognize yourself as a role model, especially if you now drive with an interactive dashboard-mounted screen. If you update your Facebook page or read a restaurant review while driving, you will have a hard time warning your teen about electronic distraction.
Take with a proverbial grain of salt the argument that using distracting electronics while driving is a matter of individual choice. When the driver behind you isn't wearing a seat belt, she threatens her own safety. When she's electronically distracted, she threatens herself, you, and everyone around her.
Recognize the risks of a GPS device for new drivers. The screens themselves can be a distraction; the devices are not infallible (the only thing worse than a teen driver is a lost teen driver); and GPS voice commands may give a teen driver the impression that a specified maneuver ("Turn left here") is safe, when it's only directional.
Don't neglect headphones and earbuds. Hearing is part of safe driving, and new drivers need every bit of information available. Anything that removes hearing from the driving process is a distraction and a safety risk.
Parents who understand these risks and implement these steps will still have plenty to worry about with their teen drivers, but at least they will be taking concrete steps to address the known and predictable dangers of distracted driving.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.
And if you'd like to share your story or observation, please send us your 500-850-word post to firstname.lastname@example.org.