New teen drivers may be able to recite the rules of the road, but can they learn how to handle all the distractions coming at them from inside their cars? Teen driver safety researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are studying common scenarios that involve serious hazards of distracted driving and how they affect novice drivers’ performance.
Imagine that you are a teenager sliding behind the wheel, eager to hit the road after a mind-numbing last period of Social Studies. Your friends are even more thrilled to get a free ride, slamming the car doors. You exit the driveway as your BFF reaches over to turn up the volume of her favorite song. Her new boyfriend is bouncing around the backseat, and you are trying to remember if his name is Josh or Justin when “Mom” pops up on your cell phone. She wants to know how long until you will be home. Suddenly, your brain registers that there was a flashing yellow light at the intersection you just crossed, and you did not even try to slow down.
This phenomenon called “looked but did not see” occurs when your brain is processing too many sensory inputs and your attention capacity narrows, explained CIRP researcher Yi-Ching Lee, PhD, who studies the human factors that influence safe driving dynamics. “When you’re busy driving, things come and go all the time, so how do drivers attend to multiple sources of information?” This is the question at the root of her investigations.
For teen drivers, the answer is poorly. In 2012, 10 percent of all 15- to 19-year-old drivers involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crashes, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). Distracted driving was a factor in 14 percent of all police-reported crashes involving teen drivers in 2012, according to NHTSA.
As part of Dr. Lee’s latest work, she and colleagues at Parallel Consulting conducted a survey of about 400 drivers, ages 15 to 18, from 31 states to help understand how often teens use a cell phone while driving and to whom they talk. They discovered that more than half the teens talking on cell phones while driving reported conversing with their parents.
“We saw that parents play a significant role in the number of calls that teens receive in the car,” Dr. Lee said. “You would think that it would be friends or peers, but it’s actually the parents who are part of the problem. That was surprising.”
While some parents just wanted to check in, others bombarded their teens with repeated phone calls until they picked up. Teens said they answered the phones even though they were busy driving because they did not want their parents to get mad. A better option, Dr. Lee suggested, would be for parents to encourage their teens to find a spot to pull over to call them back.
The survey also showed that teens are more likely to text friends while driving: 35 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds reported that they text with friends while driving, while 57 percent of 18-year-olds report doing so. Yet it is apparent that parents have figured out text lingo and emojis: 8 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds text with their parents while driving, and this percentage doubled for 18-year-olds, according to the survey.
One way to deter this unsafe behavior is to use technologies that block incoming calls and texts to drivers while the car is in motion. Callers receive a standardized message such as, “I’m driving. I’ll pull over and call you back.” Dr. Lee and colleagues at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania are studying drivers’ perceptions of this type of technology, and they are preparing to conduct field trials that will track how teen and parent drivers react to different levels of restrictions when the call blocking devices are installed in the family car.
While monitoring teens and enacting legislation that restricts or bans the practice of using cell phones and text messaging while driving could be effective interventions, Dr. Lee suggested that parents could make a big difference by demonstrating good driving habits and putting their cell phones away in the car. She also encouraged society to find positive reinforcements for teens who manage their cell phone use responsibly, such as incentives from car insurance companies, and to teach teens how to deal with the temptation to stay connected and up-to-date all of the time.
“We need to make them aware of pacing and self-regulation so that they can resist the pressure of media and technology,” Dr. Lee said. “It has become so intense. People have the expectation that if I send a message, they need to respond in five minutes. When you are doing something demanding, like driving, and on top of that you have this sense of high urgency, it is really a lot. We as parents, educators, and researchers, should help them overcome that kind of burden.”
Using a driving simulator, Dr. Lee is conducting studies that are looking at how teen drivers interact with realistic traffic situations while performing multiple tasks. She and colleagues at Parallel Consulting also have developed a prototype of an educational game that gives teens some exposure to the complicated situations that can distract drivers when passengers are in the car.
The game is designed so that the passenger sees certain things that the driver does not, and they must learn how to act to help each other. For example, the driver must rely on the passenger to tell him, “Watch out, a truck is coming from the right.” Dr. Lee hopes to obtain additional funding in the future to make the prototype more robust so that it could be easily integrated into a high school or driving school setting.
Dr. Lee, who learned to drive in Taiwan and got her license at 18, has noticed that since she became a principal investigator with CIRP’s Teen Driver Safety Research Team, she tends to drive slower than most people.
“I get honks all the time,” Dr. Lee said. “But that doesn’t bother me because I know that I am safer driving the speed limit.”
April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Visit http://www.distraction.gov/ to learn more about how distracted driving is a major safety issue not only for teens but for everyone.