I have been talking to parents for over two decades about the important role they have in their child’s driving education. I have spoken about traffic safety to hundreds of adult groups att over the U.S. ranging from parents at high schools, to church groups, to company sponsored employee meetings.
When I speak to a group of parents at a high school, I am obviously talking to the parents of the children who attend the school, but remember, these folks also have other children of multiple ages in most cases. Other groups may include parents, grandparents—or not parents at all. I modify my presentations to suit the group I’m chatting with. A group can range in size from just a few up to 1,000 plus.
I’m going to concentrate on meetings I’ve had since 2008, because that’s when I started adding the dangers of smartphone use while driving into my presentations.
I concentrate on smartphones as the monster of distracted driving for justifiable reasons. There were 8,000 more people killed and 1.5 million more people injured in 2016 traffic crashes than in 2014. This did not happen because we all started eating more burgers while driving. The main reason is because, by the end of 2014, everyone who wanted a smartphone in the US had one; we hit 200 million smartphones in use and then fell off this tragic cliff. I started warning this was coming back in 2010.
I receive great feedback from adult groups and have had some really useful discussions, but there are certain misconceptions and denials that come through on a consistent basis, especially form parents (with children aged newborn to 16 years old).
Parents have a very hard time understanding how much of their driving behavior transfers to their children. They absolutely can’t—or don’t want to—believe this transfer of behavior starts happening from the moment they turn their child’s safety seat around to face front. I hear:
“Oh, it’s my job. I have to be on the phone.”
“I need to stay in touch with people.”
“My family might call.”
“I don’t believe my kids are paying any attention to my driving…are they?”
Oh yes, they are. I have thousands of evaluations from children aged 8 to 18 years old which clearly show parents are influencing their children in a negative way about distracted driving. I have spoken to children as young as 5 years old who can clearly describe parent distracted driving behaviors—including aggressive driving habits.
Research studies also show most parents believe it is their kids’ friends or the driver education process (If they receive any) that is the biggest influence on their child’s driving—it isn’t. This disconnect shows most parents are in denial or clueless about this critical transfer of potentially deadly behavior to their children. It also explains why they continuously drive distracted with children of all ages in their vehicle.
If parents drive completely distraction-free with their children in their vehicle as they grow up, we know these children will be much less likely to drive distracted. There is plenty of research data out there to verify this.
Not driving distracted includes cutting out hands-free phone calls, Bluetooth and talking to a vehicle infotainment system. I get a lot of push back from parents on this because they just don’t want to put away their smartphones or stop talking to their vehicle—even if it means setting a better example for their children.
“It’s just too inconvenient,” they tell me.
I tell them: Your children are only in your vehicle about 15% of the time once they start school full-time. Research data is solid on the dangers of hands free smartphone/infotainment use, thanks to University of Utah professor Dr. David Strayer.
Parents understand they need to create limits for their children early on. The left seat (Driver’s seat) needs to be a distraction free zone—no exceptions. Parents tell me all the time that after practicing distraction free-driving for their kids, they drive much less distracted when driving alone. There’s a reason for this: They have become much more aware of all the other distracted drivers out there because they were “seeing” more. They now pay more attention when driving alone, to keep themselves safer and less vulnerable.
Parents also need to consider that there are currently phone-free and distraction free zones in children’s lives, places where children have no choice but to pay attention and ignore their smartphone: sitting on the bench for a basketball or football game, playing in a band, taking an examination, etc. Teachers and coaches set these boundaries and in most cases, the children understand and follow the rules. Parents, you can show your children this same distraction-free behavior has to happen behind the wheel. Please explain to them why you’re doing it: for your teen’s safety now and, if you have younger kids—for their future, when they start to drive on their own.