Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Your Phone Can Wait – The Dangers of Distracted Driving

By Katrin Lichtsinn, MD
Pediatric Resident at The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School
Member, Texas Medical Association

One of the biggest milestones in a teenager’s life is getting a driver’s license, but with this newfound freedom also comes a lot of responsibility. A big danger facing teenagers behind the wheel is distracted driving, which is defined as any activity that takes a driver’s attention away from driving. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drivers under age 20 are more likely than any other age group to be involved in a distraction-related fatal crash. One in 10 (9%) of all teenage motor vehicle crash deaths in 2017 involved distracted driving. We physicians would much prefer our young patients stay safe. Otherwise, the consequences are just too tragic.

There are three main types of driving distractions: visual (eyes off the road), manual (hands off the wheel), and cognitive (not focused on driving). Texting is one of the most dangerous driving distractions, because it involves all three elements. According to CDC, in the five seconds it takes the driver to send or read a text, a car going 55 mph could drive more than the length of a football field (120 yards, or 360 feet). In that distance, a deadly crash could easily occur. According to recent studies, as many as four out of five (84%) teenagers have sent a text while driving in the last 30 days. In addition, adolescents who frequently text and drive have a high risk of other dangerous driving behaviors, including not wearing a seatbelt, driving under the influence of alcohol, and riding in a car with a driver who has been drinking alcohol.

Many states are fighting this growing problem by implementing bans on cell phone use while driving. As of this spring, 48 states and the District of Columbia had banned texting while driving, and 18 states and the District of Columbia had banned drivers from using a phone hand-held while behind the wheel. Texas has such a law: In 2017, Texas passed a statewide ban on using wireless communication devices for electronic messaging while driving. If caught reading, writing, or sending electronic messages via a wireless communication device while driving, first-time offenders can be fined up to $99 and repeat offenders can be fined up to $200. In addition, it is illegal for drivers under 18 years old to text or make any telephone calls while driving, even with a hands-free device.

So, what can teens and their parents do to make driving as safe as possible? First, parents need to model safe driving habits by always wearing a seatbelt and obeying traffic laws. Second, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends creating a teen driving contract, which can start a discussion about expectations, the rules of the road, staying focused on driving, avoiding drugs and alcohol while driving or riding in a car, and being a responsible driver. By focusing their eyes, hands, and minds on driving, teenagers can more safely enjoy the freedom of being behind the wheel.

My physician colleagues and I want to keep our teenage patients safe and out of the emergency department, so I hope teens heed this advice.

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