Distracted driving is a problem for drivers of all ages — over 390,000 drivers were injured by distracted driving in 2015 alone. But dangerous behaviors behind the wheel are especially prevalent among high school and college students. But steps can be taken by students, schools and parents to change distracted driving habits and make the roads safer for everyone. Learn more about causes of distracted driving, distracted driving laws and ways to combat this growing problem.
26% of teens read or send a text at least once every time they drive.
34% of drivers between age 16 and 17 say they have texted while driving.
Teen drivers (16-19 years old) are nearly three times more likely to be in a fatal car crash than those 20 years and older.
40% of young adults reported that they have been passengers when the driver put themselves and others in danger by using their cell phone.
There are three main types of distractions that occur while driving:
Manual distractions cause drivers to take one or more hands off the wheel
Visual distractions take a driver’s eyes away from the road
Cognitive distractions prevent drivers from focusing on all the elements that go into driving safely
Here are some manual, visual and cognitive distractions common to student drivers.
This may be the first thing people think of when considering distracted driving, and with good reason. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, during daylight hours, around 660,000 people use their cell phones while driving. Phones serve a variety of functions–making calls, using social media apps, checking maps, playing music or even reporting traffic incidents. This means they also provide many opportunities for drivers to be unsafe.
Listening to music in the car is commonplace and seems harmless. But a bigger problem may arise for those who like to sing and dance with the music, listen to it too loudly to hear what’s going on outside the car or adjust the music frequently.
Personal injury attorney and driving safety expert, Marc Lamber, cautions against focusing just on texting and ignoring less obvious hazards: “While texting and driving gets most of the press, changing the radio station – or letting your mind wander with a song or getting caught up in a talk-radio argument – can be considered driving distractions.”
A teen’s risk of getting into an accident increases when other teens are in the car, and the more passengers there are, the higher the risk, according to the CDC. Driving with others in the car is a cognitive distraction, taking the driver’s focus away from the road.
Perfecting your hair, makeup, teeth and clothes while driving can invoke all three types of distraction at once.
Students are busy and often deal with tightly packed schedules. However, saving time by eating while driving is a manual distraction that Donna Bayless, co-owner of RightLane, says should be avoided.
“Messy foods, hot coffee, Big Gulps can all be distractions, too. Have you ever reached for that big drink by the plastic top only to have it come off, causing the drink to spill in your lap? Now that’s a distraction.”
The late nights and early mornings that are habitual for students often lead to insufficient sleep, which can easily lead to a cognitive distraction. An estimated 21 percent of fatal car crashes involve drowsy drivers and drivers age 16-24 are 80 percent more likely to be in a drowsy driving accident.
If students are lucky, not focusing on the road could result in an inconvenient setback – like a ticket—or a close call. If they’re not so lucky, the consequences can be much worse. Here are some of the potential consequences of distracted driving:
Having to tell their parents that they got pulled over for messing with their phones is rarely a fun experience for teens. The situation is worse if someone gets hurt and other families are involved. Grounding, revoking of privileges, guilt and other punishments may await teens who drive distracted.
All states except Montana have laws in place to limit distracted driving from phone use. Teens who get caught driving while using their phones can expect a potentially costly ticket. For example, California passed a law in 2017 that fines drivers for hand-held use of their cellphone — $20 for the first offense, $50 for each subsequent offence. In New York, the fine can reach as high as $450 for texting and driving.
Failing to follow cellphone laws can also result in points on your license. For example, texting or emailing while driving in Indiana comes with a 4-point penalty.
Insurance rates tend to be higher for young, inexperienced drivers, but after getting written up for distracted driving, the rates can go even higher. According to Esurance, insurance rates for teen drivers can go up after only one moving violation.
While generally reserved for repeat offenders, young people face the very real possibility of losing their driving privileges, either temporarily or permanently, after one offense, particularly if they cause an accident. In New York, drivers with a learner’s permit who text and drive can receive a 120-day suspension of their license for the first offense and could lose their license for a year if they get caught a second time within six months.
Although it’s not the norm, if distracted driving results in injury or death, teens may face time in jail. In 2016, an Alaskan teen was sentenced to a year in jail after distracted driving lead to a fatal collision.
Teens who drive while distracted subject themselves and others to life-threatening situations. Car accidents are the leading cause of death among 13- to 19-year-olds, and that risk increases when drivers are not focused.
For years, distracted driving has consistently been a big issue, and with so many distractions being added to the mix, it’s a tough problem to combat. Lawmakers at the local, state and federal levels, however, have worked to reduce distracted driving and related accidents through legislation.
There are a few different types of distracted driving laws common across the United States, all of which are related to cellphone use in particular. Many of these laws are primary enforcement laws, which means drivers can receive citations for phone use without first getting pulled over for a different offense.
At its broadest, this law prohibits texting while driving. Some states get more specific, prohibiting reading or writing a text, email or instant message.
This law permits hands-free phone use, like bluetooth calling, but any hand-held phone activity is prohibited.
Any use of a cell phone while driving is prohibited.
Individuals, nonprofits, schools and government organizations have all put forth efforts to reduce distracted driving among young people and the driving community as a whole. Still, there is much room for improvement, especially as the number of potential driving distractions continues to grow.
Whether through small personal choices, big pushes toward legislative change or something in between, there are many ways educators, parents and students can combat distracted driving habits.
Educators aren’t just interested in their students’ academic success; they are invested in their students’ overall safety and wellbeing, too. Here are some ways they can help:
Driver education courses give students a set time and place to practice driving and learn safe skills with a professional. These types of classes are typically offered outside of school, but building driver education into the curriculum or offering it as an elective course increases accessibility to students.
Schools can partner with safe driving organizations to get students involved and bring attention to distracted driving issues. Schools can even win grants to help them continue their efforts toward reducing distracted driving among students.
Teachers don’t have to wait until after a tragedy to talk with students about the dangers of distracted driving. Bayless notes: “Most of the teenagers that we talk to have a strong desire to never be responsible for hurting someone, either physically or emotionally. When we’ve talked about the aftermath of a potential crash, where they would be at fault, teenagers consistently go back to the emotion of the event.”
Having an open and engaging discussion about distracted driving can help students consider how they would feel if an accident occurred, causing them to think twice before engaging in risky behaviors.
Not every student will go home and use those resources, but if one student does, an impact is still made and can spread to other students. Plus, there may be extra incentive if resources include scholarship and grant opportunities or contests that align with students’ interests, like filmmaking or design.
Teens tend to think that more people text and drive than they actually do – particularly adults – so it seems socially acceptable. By contrast, drunk driving has earned a reputation for being dangerous and reckless.
Lamber stresses that awareness of the issue is key. “For years, the consequences of drinking and driving were ingrained in our consciousness, and now, the dangers of distracted driving need to be taken just as seriously.” Educators can level with students and emphasize that, like drunk driving, distracted driving is not the norm.
Students may be uncomfortable with their friends’ or families’ poor driving habits but feel awkward confronting them about it. Teachers should be available for students to talk about these conflicts and be prepared to offer advice.
Parents may not have total control over how their teens behave behind the wheel, but they can take steps to help their children stay safe and focused while driving.
The multitude of changing distractions that can affect their kids is relatively new territory for parents. When they know of the various ways their teens’ attention can get diverted, parents can be better equipped to talk to their kids, set parameters and foster safe driving habits.
Many teens learn how to drive from their parents or other family members. Before getting started, parents should check in on their own driving, or even take a class, to make sure they’re up to speed on safe instruction and behaviors.
Before their child starts driving, parents can discuss the parameters of their teen’s driving privileges, including any consequences if the agreement is broken.
Both Bayless and Lamber agree that it’s important for parents to set a good example for their young drivers. “Parents must set the precedent for safe driving,” says Bayless. “If a dad thinks nothing of going 90 mph down the interstate, then his daughter will think that’s okay, too. If a mom decides to send a quick Snapchat from the car, then her son will never see a problem with using his phone when he drives.”
Lamber suggests that parents make a point of keeping their attention focused on the road and pull over if they really need to answer a phone call or send a message.
“I’ve also heard of families ‘putting all electronics in a bag,’ and placing the bag in the trunk until the car stops. In this way, the driver – and the passengers – are all committed to making sure that distracted driving is greatly minimized,” says Lamber.
Meeting up with other parents to get them educated or on board with safe driving agreements can be helpful for parents and their teens alike. For instance, if all parents within a certain friend group have the same driving rules, none of the teens in the group will feel uncomfortable about refusing to give someone a ride or asking a friend to put their phone away while driving.
Systems like Cellcontrol and tXtBlocker prevent drivers from being able to use their phones while in the car while allowing phone access to passengers. They are usually easy to install and have customizable settings.
Many auto insurance companies offer computer-based safe driving courses that young drivers can complete. These tend to be interactive and can even give parents a reduced insurance rate if their teen passes.
“Parents must not expect their teenagers to answer their phone when they’re driving,” says Bayless. “This is the number one complaint we hear from teens about their parents. Develop a family agreement that there is never an expectation that the teen answer the phone when they’re driving.”
Students have the most control over their driving habits, so it’s crucial for them to take steps toward reducing distracted behaviors behind the wheel.
Waking up a few minutes earlier can give students the leeway they need to drive safely to school without fear of being late. Parents may need to get on board and help their students actually get up when the alarm buzzes.
This is a straightforward way for new drivers to reduce in-car distractions. Eating can feel like a pressing issue, but it can usually wait until teens arrive at their destination.
Teens who find themselves DJing too much in the car should try to plan their music out ahead of time. Making playlists, finding full albums to listen to or picking a wakeup mix from a streaming app to help with the morning commute can keep students’ hands on the wheel and minds on the road.
It can be tough when students feel like they are the only ones trying to stick to safe driving habits. Making an agreement with friends–and gently calling them out when they break the pact–can ease the stress and keep everyone safer.
“Research shows it takes around 21 days to make a habit; therefore, students should make a conscious decision to put the phone out of reach for three weeks when they drive. No exceptions. In addition, if a teen makes this choice and communicates it, then friends are less likely to be upset when answers are delayed. Peer pressure is rough, but the consequences of distracted driving are much worse,” says Bayless.
Sometimes things really can’t wait. In these situations, teens should pull over. This allows them to give full focus to the call or text without putting themselves or anyone else in danger.
Should teens find themselves in the car with a friend driving, they should be respectful of that person and make a strong effort not to distract them.
Distracting as they are, phones are not without their good uses. Students can download distracted driving apps, like LifeSaver, to do some of the legwork for them. Apps may block calls and texts while a person is driving, track how many times a person taps or swipes on their phone or log the number of miles that were driven safely.
Lamber points out that apps that silence incoming texts and send auto-replies to the sender notifying them that the recipient is driving can be especially useful.
This page from the Center for Disease Control is a great launching pad for parents who want to learn more about how they can help their teen become less distracted behind the wheel.
Teen Driver Source provides information and resources for teen drivers, educators and parents. Find informational facts and stats, tips on communicating effectively with teens, ways to bring awareness to schools and more.
Teachers can access this straightforward safe driving lesson plan and use it in the classroom.
Access tools, information and kits to launch an effective Distracted Driving Awareness Month campaign.
TeenDrive365 provides a multitude of resources for educators, including contests for students, lesson plans, knowledge quizzes for teachers and tool kits.
Talking to teens about safe driving practices isn’t always easy or straightforward. Travelers developed a kit to help parents start a meaningful dialogue with their young drivers.
The Parent’s Supervised Driving Program is a multimedia kit that helps parents effectively assist their teens during the required supervised driving stage the precludes licensure.
Distracted driving has impacted many lives, and there are many awareness and prevention organizations as a result. These are just a few of the organizations pushing against distracted driving, especially among young drivers.
In 2012, students within the Lenape Regional High School District created the Heads Up, Eyes Forward safe driving campaign to spread distracted driving awareness and get other high school students involved. Students who want to participate in the campaign can pick up a Heads Up, Eyes Forward magnet from their school’s office and put it on their car.
While the visual is a good reminder for other drivers on the road, the Heads Up, Eyes Forward campaign has other perks built in to encourage student participation. Each month, a magnet-donning student from each participating high school is chosen as the Safe Driver of the Month and receives a premium parking spot in the staff lot and a gift card.
Heads Up, Eyes Forward has an active social media presence and a dedicated YouTube channel that features safe driving videos created by students. Additionally, the campaign has downloadable Heads Up, Eyes Forward lock screens that students can use as reminders to drive safely and save the phone for later.
After experiencing a high number of student crash fatalities–five teens lost their lives in separate car wrecks between November 2016 and January 2017–Williamson County School District created a safe driver task force. The task force initially worked to inform students about the dangers of distracted driving and eventually decided to implement the Checkpoints Program.
Under the program, new drivers and their parents must participate in a face-to-face training session that includes videos, special driving techniques and collaboration on a safe driving agreement. After completing the program, students are eligible to receive a school parking permit.
Williamson County’s efforts to reduce fatalities due to distracted driving does not stop there, however. The district applied for and received a $20,000 grant from the Tennessee Highway Safety Office, which will be used to bring virtual reality goggles and laptops to county high schools. The schools will use VR to simulate dangerous driving situations in hopes that it will help students change their risky behaviors.
When a fellow TCC student was killed by a distracted driver in 2014, students in the community college’s multimedia program set out to bring awareness to Florida’s distracted driving problem. Each group of students created a website and a public service announcement for the Anthony Phoenix Branca Foundation, which was founded in memory of the student whose life was lost. The projects were judged by a panel at a local PR agency, and awards of $500 and $150 were given to the first and second place submissions.
Since the contest, the student projects have become part of a larger campaign throughout the entire state: Put Down the Phone, #JustDriveFL. Students and other Floridians are encouraged to create and upload their own videos to spread the word about distracted driving.
There are many opportunities for students to improve their driving and foster safe driving habits. These resources come in a range of formats, so students can gain skills and knowledge in ways that fit with their learning style and schedules.
Driver’s education courses are available through private agencies or community colleges. Hands-on courses pair students with an experienced driving teacher who guides them through real-world situations. This can help students fulfill their required supervised driving time. You can find driver’s ed courses in your area at DriversEd.com.
While these don’t offer the time behind the wheel that other driver’s ed courses might, online classes are full of valuable information and tips. Students can get familiar with traffic laws, emergency driving procedures and other important info. These courses can also help students pass the written portion of their driving tests.
This unique online driver’s education course is written by some of Hollywood’s best comedians, so students can actually have a good time while learning how to be better drivers.
MiraCosta College in California offers an online driver’s ed course to help students meet their learner’s permit requirements.
Students from all states can take online courses through I Drive Safely to help them improve their driving knowledge and prepare for their written exams and learner’s permits.
Auto insurance companies are always interested in reducing accidents on the road, so many of them offer online courses to help teens work through theoretical situations and learn safe driving techniques.
Teens use the Safe Driver app, which has motion detection, to track and score their drives. The app shows where teens can improve their driving, and they can improve their scores each time they get behind the wheel. After 3,000 miles or one year in the program, parents can get a discount on their insurance.
Students can access course materials online or through the program’s mobile app. If successfully completed, students not only have better-honed skills, but they may also qualify for a discount on their car insurance.
Various insurance companies partner with this award-winning driver safety program to help improve teen driving skills and reduce insurance claims.