In the summer of 2009, a shocking video posted on the Internet gained widespread attention from the media. Viewers found it so upsetting that YouTube restricted access to it on its Web site. Created by the police department of a small town in Wales, it depicted a fictional but horrific car accident that claimed the lives of four people and seriously injured the driver who caused it. The culprit: A teenage girl who was sending a text message from her cell phone while driving.
“Texting” while driving is a very dangerous practice. Car accidents are already the leading cause of death for people aged 16 to 20, according to the Centers for Disease Control; by distracting them, texting increases their chances of getting in accidents. Eastern Virginia Medical School ran a study in which 21 teenagers with at least six months’ driving experience and no chemical influences simulated driving in 10 minute segments. When they sent text messages or searched their MP3 players while driving, they changed lanes and speeds more often than when they did not. Some of them ran over pedestrians.
The federal Department of Transportation convened a Distracted Driving Summit meeting in the fall of 2009. Participants discussed solutions to a variety of distractions, including ways to get teens to stop texting behind the wheel.
- Just as they would talk to their teens about the dangers of drinking and driving, parents should talk with them about driving while texting. Teens don’t necessarily think about how risky some behaviors may be. Driver education instructors might not raise this issue, so it’s up to parents to address it.
- When they have the conversation with their teens, parents should not worry about being too harsh. Cemeteries are full of teenagers who thought they were immortal, so this is no time to soft-pedal the message. Have them watch the Welsh police department’s video, give them testimonials from other teens to read, and show them stories about accidents like the one in 2007 that killed five girls who had just graduated from high school near Rochester, New York.
- Some state and local governments have enacted laws against texting and driving. New York, California, Arkansas, Texas and Missouri are a few of the states that have enacted bans. Parents should find out the laws where they live and make sure their teens know.
- Parents should set firm rules with tough consequences for violations. Loss of driving and cell phone privileges are some of the penalties parents may want to consider for breaking the rules.
- Parents should model the behavior they want from their teens. They should avoid talking on cell phones or texting while driving themselves. These practices are not any safer when someone over age 40 does them; parents should set a good example and drive safely.
Learning to drive is an important milestone in a teenager’s passage to adulthood. It is important for safe driving habits to become ingrained in new drivers. Parents are their children’s first teachers in many subjects; texting and driving should be no different. Teens’ lives and the lives of the people sharing the highways with them depend on it.