Study on teens' using cellphones while driving

Posted: January 17, 2016

Motor-vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those crashes have many causes, but one risk factor getting increasing attention is teens' use of cellphones while driving. A CDC risk survey found almost 45 percent of teens who responded said they had texted while driving during the previous 30 days. Other researchers have found that more than half of youths ages 16 and 17 who have cellphones have talked on them while driving.

Catherine C. McDonald, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and a principal investigator at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, became concerned about these statistics and decided to delve a little deeper.

She and a colleague, Marilyn S. Sommers, professor of medical-surgical nursing at Penn, recently published the results of their research in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention. McDonald spoke to us about what they learned.

What led you to look into teens and distracted driving?

I was a nurse in a pediatric intensive-care unit, a pediatric emergency department, and a school nurse in a high school. I saw firsthand the devastating effects that crashes can have on the individual teens, their families, and the community. I worked in a school where there were very unfortunate and sad fatalities. When I started this line of research, I was interested in trying to better understand what is happening with our teens, particularly what makes them at such high risk for crashes.

Eventually, I decided to focus on cellphone use. It's a logical area to try to address with teens. They're on their cellphones a lot. Almost all the time. And when they mix that with driving, it's very dangerous.

Tell me about the study.

We were interested in what can we do on the prevention side to help them avoid being distracted. In order to develop interventions, we know it is important to understand the perceptions of the teens themselves. We wanted to know whether they thought it was safe or unsafe to use a phone - what they saw their friends doing, what they thought their friends were doing, what they thought they would need to do if their friends were in the car with them. We wanted to dive a little deeper into what they were thinking.

And a key way to do that is to talk to them. We had 30 teens in seven focus groups. They were boys and girls, 16 to 18 years old, who had been licensed in Pennsylvania for one year or less.

Not to malign teens, but how did you know they were being candid?

They knew they were in a research study. When talking to them, we really sent the message: The information you're giving us, or your data, is confidential. We're not going to tell your parents. We really want to know, honestly, what's going on so we can build effective prevention efforts, so we can do something to keep teens safe on the road. I was doing the interviews, and they knew I was a nurse, so they may have felt more comfortable sharing with a health professional. Additionally, we would frame our questions in terms of "what do you do, what do your friends do, what do you see others doing?" We were giving them multiple opportunities to tell a story.

What did you find out?

We found that almost all, if not all, the teens thought it's unsafe to text and drive. But yet, many would still do it. The issue of context matters. If it was a good friend texting or calling, they were more likely to answer. Or if it was a friend whose house they were going to, and they wanted to let someone know they were running late, that mattered.

Oddly enough, if it was a parent calling, the teens often felt they needed to answer. That's the exact opposite of what parents would want.

It was really interesting to hear the teens talk about what their definition of texting while driving was. If we say something like "don't text and drive," they may say that means writing a text message while going 50 miles an hour. They may not consider sitting at a red light and reading a text message as texting while driving. So for us as researchers, we need to make sure we're asking our teens the right questions about their cellphone use while driving.

What can we learn from this? Any advice for parents?

Some teens talked about ways to be safer - turning off their phones, or putting their phones in a purse in the backseat, or pulling to the side of the road to make a call. As health-care providers, researchers, and parents, we can work with that. It's an opportunity for us to intervene. Whereas, if they said, "Well, I only read text messages at a red light," at least that's an opening, and we can talk about how that still takes their attention off the road. We developed a Web-based intervention for inattention based on what the teens said in the focus groups, and right now, we're running a study testing it.

For parents, there should be clear conversations about not texting and driving, and that includes not texting at red lights. These should become rules of using the car.

It's important for parents to say, "You don't have to answer the phone if I call when you are driving. I want you to be safe." Come up with an agreed-upon phrase or response that will happen after the teen is finished driving: "Mom or Dad, I was driving, sorry I didn't answer."

Also, parents should think about their own behaviors and what they're modeling for their teens. Whatever they're doing behind the wheel, would they want their teen to be doing it?

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