"One in four (26%) of American teens of driving age say they have texted while driving, and half (48%) of all teens ages 12 to 17 say they’ve been a passenger while a driver has texted behind the wheel."
These findings are from a 2009 report from the Pew Research Center. That's a lot of distracted driving in an age group already notorious for its bad driving record.
Of course, when you're 18, you're invincible, and immortal (that's why armies like to draft young people). Four out of five young adults claim they can safely text while driving. Moreover, there is - sometimes intense - pressure from friends to stay connected at all times.
So our job as parents is to convince our children that, even though they see it happen all around them, it's really not a good idea to text and drive. In fact, it's illegal in most states. But that doesn't seem enough of a deterrent. So it's up to us: parents need to mount an in-house ad campaign against texting while driving. Here are some ideas on how to go about it.
1. Starting now, don't text and drive.
You weren't doing that anyway - weren't you? All your research into the safest child seats are for nothing if you don't pay full attention to your driving. Drive like your life depends on it - it does.
Moreover, even if your angel baby is still tiny, she's got eyes to see, and what she sees most (and wants to imitate most) is you. The angel baby may grow into a gangly teen, surly and rebellious, but you're still the role model. Don't text and drive while your children are in the car. What am I saying? - don't text and drive, period! (Also, ask anyone who takes your child in their car not to text and drive).
2. Ask your child to answer your phone.
Ideally, your phone is turned off while you're driving. But if you're expecting an urgent phone call or text that can't wait until you've found a place to stop, ask your child to answer it. Playing your secretary swells their chests with pride, and gets them used to the idea of a designated in-car texter/phone answerer who is not the driver.
3. Give a cellphone with strings attached.
Most parents don't give their children a cellphone without teaching them the proper use of it, including the etiquette. Together with such house rules as "It stays out of your bedroom after lights out", it's okay to add, "And later on, you will of course never phone or text while driving, because that's stupid" - even if your child is years away from a driver's license when they get the phone.
4. Talk to your teen about texting and driving.
Your child has buttons: push them. Remind them that texting while driving is illegal in most states (and should be in all); make them responsible for the fine plus any increase in your car insurance premium. If they've ever fallen off their bike, talk about how much worse a car crash would feel. Make no bones about it: a car is potentially a murder weapon. If you know of someone who was involved in a bad car accident, talk about how it has changed their lives. (If you don't, I am happy for you).
Acknowledge how hard it is to unplug, even for the duration of the drive; and point out why it's worth it. As safety educator Robert Bliss likes to say to his students, “When you get in the car to drive home today, do me a favor — turn your phone completely off, and not just on vibrate or silent mode. You will go through three stages. The first is severe anxiety; the second is a feeling of relief, and the third is that you’ll feel safer behind the wheel and more in control.”
This is an ongoing conversation, not a one-shot deal. Treat it as a protracted advertising campaign: small bite-sized pieces repeated consistently is the most effective way to get the message across. Marketing executives know this, as do parents trying to teach our children table manners. Except that texting and driving is much more dangerous than talking with your mouth full of food.
5. Watch this movie with your teen.
Please consider watching "From One Second To The Next", together with your teen and discuss it afterward. Produced by Werner Herzog for AT&T's "It Can Wait" campaign against texting and driving, the movie shows the harrowing consequences of accidents caused by distracted driving: the pain and anger of the family members of the victims, and the changes, much for the worse, in the lives of everyone involved. None of its 35 minutes is easy to watch: that's the point.
"From One Second To The Next" - Werner Herzog. 35 mins.
6. Tell your teen about passenger safety.
Even if your teen is among the growing number of young people who are not interested in driving, chances are they will at some point get a ride with friends who do drive. Talk them through the barrier of being the uncool one who requests no texting while driving. They're really doing their friends a favour, and keeping everyone in the car safer.
Just as you remind them of the "designated driver" policy at parties where alcohol is served, you can remind them of the "designated texter" policy in the car.
7. Ask them to sign the pledge.
Give them the car keys with strings attached. Make them pledge, formally, to be smart about driving, not to drink and drive, and not to text and drive. The act of putting your signature on a piece of paper is significant. So is publishing your pledge on Facebook, for all your friends to see.
Will your child think you're a nag? Yes. Will they roll their eyes? Why yes! And still we need to persist. Just like we nag them about their homework, or cleaning up their room. We don't have a choice, really: Nobody dies from a messy room; but in 2011 there were 1.3 million car crashes (25% of collisions in the US) involving the use of cell phones. Let's all do our bit to bring that number down.
Meanwhile, keep looking over your shoulder: technology isn't standing still, and carmakers are working on the digitally connected car. They're essentially talking about a car-size smartphone that - by the way - takes you from A to B. Now that promises to be immersively distracting.