Students & Distracted Driving How Parents & Schools Can Teach Safe Habits

Meet the Experts

Donna Bayless Owner, RightLane driver training company Read bio
Marc Lamber Attorney, Driving & Car Safety Expert Read bio

Written by…

Shelley Zansler Read bio

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.

Students & Distracted Driving

26% of teens read or send a text at least once every time they drive.

Around 13% of drivers between age 18 and 20 who were involved in car wrecks admitted to using their phones when the crash occurred.

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.

77% of young adults are confident they can safely text and drive, yet teens who text while driving spend about 10% of their driving time outside of their lane.

How student drivers get distracted

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.

  • Phone use

    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.

  • Music

    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.”

  • Friends and other teen passengers

    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.

  • Personal care/grooming

    Perfecting your hair, makeup, teeth and clothes while driving can invoke all three types of distraction at once.

  • Eating

    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.”

  • ` Lack of sleep

    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.

Consequences of distracted driving

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:

Distracted Driving Laws

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.

What laws target distracted driving?

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.

Text Messaging

At its broadest, this law prohibits texting while driving. Some states get more specific, prohibiting reading or writing a text, email or instant message.

Hand-Held Cellphone Use

This law permits hands-free phone use, like bluetooth calling, but any hand-held phone activity is prohibited.

All Cellphone Use

Any use of a cell phone while driving is prohibited.

States with distracted driving restrictions for students

Source: Governors Highway Safety Association

Reducing Distracted Driving Among Students

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:

  • Offer driver education

    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.

  • Host safe driving campaigns, contests and assemblies

    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.

  • Have class discussions

    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.

  • Point students to online resources

    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.

  • Push against the normalization of distracted driving

    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.

  • Be available to talk

    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.

  • Get familiar with common distractions

    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.

  • Brush up on safe driving practices

    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.

  • Set up rules and agreements

    Before their child starts driving, parents can discuss the parameters of their teen’s driving privileges, including any consequences if the agreement is broken.

  • Set an example

    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.

  • Talk to other parents

    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.

  • Install a phone blocker

    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.

  • Look into online classes through insurance providers

    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.

  • Avoid sending conflicting messages

    “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.

  • Leave with plenty of time

    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.

  • Avoid eating while driving

    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.

  • Get music ready in advance

    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.

  • Make an agreement with friends

    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.

  • Pull over if necessary

    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.

  • Don’t distract friends

    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.

  • Use a distracted driving app

    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.

Safe Driving Resources for Parents & Teachers

Organizations Against Distracted Driving

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.

  • EndDD – End Distracted Driving

    EndDD is a huge organization established to save lives from distracted driving. A network of 500 EndDD speakers has given talks to over 375,000 students across the country at no cost to schools. The organization also provides a variety of tools and resources to help educators, parents and teens get more informed about distracted driving.

  • Impact Teen Drivers

    Impact Teen Drivers is a California-based non-profit that strives to change driving culture through education. The organization provides training programs, workshops, free online materials and other information to schools and students all over the country.

  • Students Against Destructive Decisions

    SADD, formerly known as Students Against Drunk Driving, is the leading peer-to-peer education and prevention organization in the U.S. Since its founding in 1981, SADD has educated and empowered students to encourage one another to prevent risky behaviors, like distracted driving, through workshops, contests and other interactive activities.

  • Teens Against Distracted Driving

    TADD was established to help educate young drivers about the consequences of distracted driving and encourage them to spread the word to their peers. The organization provides teens with campaign ideas so they can bring the safe driving message to their schools.

Schools making a difference

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.

Where Students Can Learn Safe 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.

  • Comedy Traffic School

    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 Online Driver Education

    MiraCosta College in California offers an online driver’s ed course to help students meet their learner’s permit requirements.

  • I Drive Safely

    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.

  • American Family Insurance – Teen Safe Driver

    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.

  • StateFarm – Steer Clear Program

    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.

  • teenSMART

    Various insurance companies partner with this award-winning driver safety program to help improve teen driving skills and reduce insurance claims.

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