Reading a GPS. Answering a cell phone. Tapping out a text.
It’s hardly a surprise that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that nearly 3,000 out of the approximately 33,000 people who lose their lives in car accidents each year do so because of a distracted driver. And while distracted drivers include folks of all ages, a full 13 percent of the distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2010 were between 15 to 19 years old.
Underscoring the seriousness of distracted driving among teen drivers was a recent court case against an 18-year-old who became the first person in the state of Massachusetts to be found guilty of motor vehicle homicide as a result of texting while driving. For his part in causing the death of a 55-year-old father of three, he received two years in prison and lost his license for another 15.
A less-publicized case is that of the daughter of ERIE Agent James Murdoch of James B. Murdoch Insurance Group in Camp Hill, Pa. On Dec. 26, 2011, 17-year-old Ashleigh crashed through a fence while sending a text message. After the initial relief of realizing no one was hurt, James took away his daughter’s keys and made her pay for the damage. “I was upset and frustrated because I was always preaching to the kids about not texting and driving,” he said. “Ashleigh woke up that day.”
The incident later inspired James to launch “Put it Down,” an awareness-building campaign about the dangers of using a cell phone while driving. To get the message out, James ran a nine-month billboard campaign; distributed more than 400 magnets and 1,600 water bottles with the campaign logo on them; and urged parents to sign a Safe Driving Contract with their teen drivers.
Today, Ashleigh wouldn’t so much as think of texting while driving. She also uses her story to deter other teens from driving while distracted. “Driving is a privilege,” she says. “You should be cautious for yourself and for the people around you, not using Facebook® or texting.”
While distraction used to be limited to the radio knob and a few friends, today’s new technologies create a slew of new distractions for teen drivers.
Distraction.gov considers the following distractions:
Talking or texting on a cell phone
Eating or drinking
Talking to passengers
Using a navigation system
Watching a video
Adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player
Other causes of accidents include shaving (yes, shaving), applying make-up and reading while driving.
Texting is particularly dangerous. Sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds—which is the equivalent of driving 55 mph down an entire football field blind!
What’s a parent to do?
Lead by example. A recent Consumer Reports survey found that 48 percent of young drivers witnessed their mother or father talking on a handheld phone while driving—and another 15 percent witnessed a parent texting while behind the wheel. Your teen is looking to you for cues, so be a role model and put down the phone.
Know your state’s driving laws. States are increasingly banning phone use while driving. So while your teen driver should have a hands-off phone policy because it’s the right thing to do, penalties for getting caught could serve as an extra incentive. Visit distraction.gov to brush up on your state’s distracted driving laws.
Sign a safe driving contract with your teen. In the Safe Driving Contract James distributed as part of the Put It Down campaign, he asked parents to discuss the dangers of driving with their teens; the hazards of driving with someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol; and the necessity of wearing a seat belt at all times.