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For Teens, DWT (Driving While Texting) Is The New DUI

Driving while talking on the phone or texting can be just as dangerous as driving drunk.

By Sarah Klein

I’ll never forget the shock-and-awe tactics of my Driver’s Ed teacher. Straight-faced and stoic, he predicted that at least half of us new drivers would crash during our first year on the road. I tended to ignore his more extreme statements, but turns out there was some truth behind the warnings.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in teens. Drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as other drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Much research has been conducted into why this is so. New drivers are by definition inexperienced. Therefore they have a tendency to underestimate dangerous situations. Teens are also more likely to be speeding at the time of a crash and, more often than not, aren’t wearing seatbelts. Drinking and driving continues to be a culprit behind many teen crashes, although less so than in the 20-25 age group.

But with the rise of technology come new distractions and dangers for teen drivers. A 2006 study found that talking on a cell phone while driving can be just as debilitating, if not more so, as driving drunk. The study’s subjects, who were distracted by phone conversations, drove slower, braked slower, and were more likely to be involved in accidents. Only three subjects in the study actually crashed—all were on the phone.

And driving while texting (DWT) may have even graver consequences. According to a 2007 study, looking away to use a handheld device, as opposed to talking on a phone but keeping your eyes on the road, resulted in drivers crossing the center line or swerving into another lane 10 percent more often.

The Multi-Tasking Generation

Generations Y and Z have grown up multi-tasking. We do homework while listening to music, surf the web while the TV is on, and text at the dinner table. Teens are used to being in constant communication with friends and peers because of the ease and accessibility of the latest technological advancements. These new technologies fit seamlessly into teenage lives.

To many, it is as if this younger generation's brains are wired differently, to be able to perform so many tasks at once and to so easily adapt to the latest tech feature. But no matter how efficient it may seem, it is simply not possible to multi-task without losing some amount of focus. Even if a teen thinks he remains completely alert to other cars on the road while texting, he is distracted.

According to CNN, various studies have shown that just under 50 percent of drivers aged 16 and 17 admit to having texted while driving. These studies show the generational gap between these multi-tasking novice drivers and their more experienced counterparts behind the wheel: 37 percent of drivers ages 18 to 27, 14 percent of drivers ages 28 to 44, and only 2 percent of drivers ages 45 to 60 admitted to texting while driving.

A 2009 study
found this multi-tasking to be dangerous even while walking. Kids who crossed the street while talking or texting took 20 percent more time to do so, and were 43 percent more likely to have a close call or get hit by a car. The children surveyed were younger than driving age but marketing research predicts that 54 percent of children aged 8 to 12 will have their own cell phones by the end of this year.

Preparing Young Drivers

Allowing your child to drive the family car, or to ride her bike to a friend’s house, or even to cross the street by herself means you trust her to be safe, mature, and responsible enough to handle these activities appropriately. You would make sure she knew how to buckle a seatbelt, to wear a helmet, or look both ways. When driving, you would teach her emergency phone numbers and steering maneuvers for icy roads. And you wouldn’t let her go until you were sure she had it all down pat.

Now, instruction on the correct use of cell phones needs to be added to the list of items on a parent’s safety checklist.

One problem is that adults may not be the best role models when it comes to cell phone safety. Adults are just as guilty of cell phone dependence or are addicted to BlackBerrys or Treos. We have trouble not answering the phone or immediately responding to an email or text, because we believe that instant communications demand an instant response.

But behavior that we regard as normal in an office is not appropriate in a moving vehicle. Most of the time we don’t realize our behavior is putting us in danger because we are so used to conducting ourselves in this manner. Parents may have to take a step back from their own behavior if they wish to truly educate their young drivers about cell phones and driving safety.

Texting Legislation

In the wake of several news stories of crashes involving young drivers and cell phones, some states have enacted legislation to ban cell phone use in the car. Five states, including California and New York, have banned talking on hand-held devices. These states still allow chatting on a cell phone as long as the driver uses a headset.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, seven states including California, Connecticut and New Jersey, have banned DWT. Other states, including Maine and Virginia, prohibit texting in drivers under the age of 18, hoping that more experienced drivers will have already learned safer habits.

But making new laws may not solve the problem. The laws put all the responsibility on the police to identify texters when they have many other violations to watch out for. It also makes DWT something drivers may feel they can get away with as long as a cop isn’t around. But just as a driver can sometimes speed without getting a ticket, dangerous situations and accidents can arise no matter who is watching.

Producing educated drivers who understand the risks of distractions like chatting and texting is a much better step toward safety. Discuss the dangers of cell phone use with your new driver. Make sure he or she understands that using a cell phone – and especially texting – is a serious distraction; one that may be putting his or her life, and the lives of others, in danger. No phone call or text message is that important!

Sarah Klein is a freelance writer for both print and online media living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been featured in Health.com, Sports Illustrated Kids, and Scholastic Classroom Magazines. To read more of her work, visit SarahKleinWrites.com.

Comment by morgan paige, posted 9/17/2010, 3:40 PM:

This is a great way to spread awareness of the dangers of distracted driving! Here is a link to a website that expands on promoting safety concerning teen drivers. It is filled with webisodes, PSAs, and even more concerning the subject! http://impactteendrivers.org/
Comment by caroline, posted 6/11/2009, 10:24 AM:

I believe that focusing on teen drivers is a form of age discrimination. Why should they receive a harsher punishment when adults may text as often as teens? Where are the statistics saying that all teens text while driving more often than adults who text while driving? Is the trolley driver a teenager? It is my understanding that he is not. So why are the newscasters shifting the attention from adults who text while driving to teens?
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