Driven to Distraction—and Death

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m worried about my two teenagers. They both have a driver’s license, but even though we’ve talked about the dangers of texting while driving, I suspect they’re doing it anyway. They’re generally smart, responsible young people, but all it takes is one second. What can we do to keep them from making a mistake that could kill them—or someone else?

A: Given that more than 80 percent of teens use a cell phone while driving, you’re absolutely right to be concerned. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for all age groups from 3 to 33. In 2010, distracted drivers were responsible for 6,000 deaths in the US—a fifth of all fatalities. According to a recent study out of Virginia Tech, a driver who’s texting is 23.2 times more likely to be involved in a car accident than someone who either keeps her phone in her pocket or turns it over to a child in the back seat. By contrast, drunk drivers are only eight times more likely to get into accidents.

While those statistics are pretty startling, young adults—who tend to believe they’re immune to danger—aren’t easily scared. Back in high school, my Driver’s Ed teacher showed us a number of grisly movies produced by the Ohio State Police. Each one showed actual accident footage and had a very serious-sounding narrator saying things like, “Here’s Fred’s body. Over there is Fred’s head. If he hadn’t been following the truck in front of him so closely, he might still be alive.” The intention was to scare us into driving safely. The only result was laughter.

Fast forward a few decades to cellphone giant AT&T’s recent series of TV ads featuring the last messages sent by people who were either killed or seriously and permanently injured while texting. Unlike those Driver’s Ed movies, these ads are incredibly powerful—and truly moving enough to get even the most committed car texter, young or old, to quit. If your kids haven’t seen these ads, Bing “AT&T anti-texting” and watch them as a family.

Most cities and states have made texting while driving illegal (although fines starting at $20-$40 aren’t likely to be much of a deterrent). A number of insurance companies have changed their policies so that any texter involved in an accident may not be covered. Some lawyers are going even further and are suing the people on the other end of accident-causing text conversations. And yes, that could include moms and dads.

As far as how to convince your kids not to text and drive, start with a conversation. Read them the paragraphs above and tell them about the legal, financial, and physical consequences. But be aware that peer pressure and a “what-could-possibly-happen-in-one-second?” philosophy could win out. So you have to establish and enforce some extremely serious rules, something like “If I see you texting while you’re behind the wheel or I hear from anyone that you did, you’ll lose your driving privileges for six months. No exceptions, no second chances, no arguments.”

Because the stakes are so high, I suggest that you take some steps that go beyond words. The OneProtect, from 10n2 Technologies (10n2tek.com) is a terrific app that senses when the phone is traveling above certain speeds and disables it unless it’s being used via Bluetooth or hands-free. It can also tell the difference between a driver and a passenger (to be considered a “passenger” so you can use your phone, you have to go through an impossible-to-cheat on-screen test). OneProtect has a suite of other safety-improving, distraction-eliminating features fathers and mother can use. Unfortunately, it’s not available for iPhones.

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