10/17/2016 02:24 EDT | Updated 10/17/2016 02:24 EDT

Getting Teens To Understand The Dangers Of Texting While Driving

This week is Parachute National Teen Driver Safety Week. Distracted driving is a factor in up to 19 per cent of all fatal crashes involving teen drivers.


The new data from Parachute underlines the seriousness of this issue and indicates what to consider if we want to stamp out the scourge of distracted driving.

Public awareness campaigns are an important first step. Online counter-marketing succeeds only if teens tell other teens how ridiculously uncool and unsafe it is to text or speak into a phone while driving. Yet the dominant form of teenage communication is texting. This poses a public policy conundrum: how best do we change teen behaviour?

Two of the most distracting actions while driving a car are using a cell phone and personal grooming. Using a cell phone while driving registered as "very distracting" for 29 per cent of 16-24 year-old Canadian drivers, yet it was surprising to find that this was allegedly not distracting at all for 23 per cent of young drivers.

It was also surprising to find that roughly one third of young drivers were not at all distracted by music, and that about one quarter of the drivers were not distracted by talking with passengers or by eating and drinking.

About 35 per cent of the young drivers keep their cell phone in the car's cup holder compartment, yet 28 per cent keep the phone on their lap or in their pocket. These pocket- or lap-distracted drivers are vulnerable to fumbling the phone while negotiating traffic.

There is considerable debate over whether technology -- notably, the autonomous car -- will help or hurt. Apps may forewarn you of whether your texting is leading to a dangerous driving scenario. But reliance on technology may only induce risk compensation -- where we encourage more dangerous activity inside a car. Being in a fast-moving vehicle is inherently dangerous -- no matter how smart the machine is.

The Parachute data -- powered by RIWI monitoring technology, which tracks opinions of people who do not typically answer surveys -- tells us that most young drivers yield to a wide array of distractions. Distraction is the soul of teenage life today. Unlike alcohol in a different era -- Beverly Hills, 90210 episodes emphasized the distinct risks of drinking and driving -- today's teens do not see using a phone while driving as categorically different than other types of driver distraction.

To root out texting or using a phone while driving, we need to increase social awareness campaigns, but we also need to understand teenagers as they are -- bombarded by a fusillade of ubiquitous distractions. Any texting-while-driving public health solution, therefore, needs to be holistic: to ask teenagers to slow everything down, to gently advise them that life is too important to juggle too many tasks at once, especially inside a car.

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