Talking to Your Teens About Distracted Driving

When you’re a parent of a teen, one of the scariest milestones is when they’re ready to learn how to drive. You’re so worried about them learning skills like merging properly and remembering to check their rear view mirror, it’s easy to forget to warn them against one of the biggest road risks—distracted driving. As part of Distracted Driving Awareness Month, we want to use our ongoing partnership with Project Yellow Light to help spread awareness and education to keep teens safe on the road.

Project Yellow Light is a national scholarship competition designed to inspire teens to value and share the dangers of distracted driving with their peers. The scholarship was founded by Julie Garner after her teenage son Hunter and his friend tragically lost their lives in an accident caused by distracted driving back in 2007. “I can’t bring Hunter back,” she says, “but I can save others from meeting the same fate. So I will do everything in my power to keep you from harm.”

So with that in mind, let’s delve into everything you and your new teen driver need to know: what distracted driving is, the dangers it creates, and how they (and you) can fight the urge to distract themselves on the road.

When we think “distracted driving”, our minds often jump to the most currently discussed distraction—texting and driving. But there’s so much more to it than just texting, including things that many drivers do on a regular basis without realizing they’re distracting themselves. Distracted driving is defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as “…any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system—anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.”

The truth is, it’s technically impossible for humans to multitask. The brain is only capable of performing one task at a time, so when we think we’re “multitasking”, all we’re doing is quickly switching from one task to the other (a good way to think of it is our brains are juggling as opposed to simultaneous activity). That’s why literally anything that takes your attention from the road is a form of distracted driving.

Teen drivers are some of the worst perpetrators of distracted driving, and one of the most significant distractions is cell phone use behind the wheel. According to the NHTSA, “Research has found that dialing a phone number while driving increases your teen’s risk of crashing by six times, and texting while driving increases the risk by 23 times.” Another huge distraction for teens? Having passengers in the car. According to a AAA study, a teen driver with only one additional passenger doubles the risk of getting into a fatal car accident. More than one passenger? It jumps to five times as likely. It’s important to help your teen understand that all distractions are serious, even the kinds that may not necessarily take their eyes off the road.

So what’s a parent to do? You should, of course, remind them not to drive distracted, and share these statistics with them. But often times words only go so far, especially with teens. Here are some tips and practices that will hopefully help you keep your teen driver safe and focused on the road:

When You Do Talk, Try Not to Lecture

It’s not just teens, it’s human nature—we don’t like to be nagged or pressured into doing something, even if it’s the right thing. Try to keep your conversations about distracted driving short, conversational, and frequent. Repetition is key to instilling good behaviors, but try to limit it to when they’re heading out on the road, or just bringing it up casually when you’re hanging out. They do listen, even if they may not always show it.

Be Their Role Model

If you want your teen to be a responsible driver, it’s important to set the example for how they should behave behind the wheel. You may be surprised to notice how often you yourself are engaging in distracting behaviors. Familiarize yourself with your state’s GDL laws so you can answer their questions and help to further their driving education. Also, even if your teen is taking lessons with an instructor, it’s good to set aside time to take them on practice sessions yourself. That way, you can make sure they’re instilling habits to keep themselves distraction-free on the road.

Make Safe Driving Fun

It’s hard for most people to pass up a game or a challenge, including teens. Try to instill good behaviors by using rewards. Maybe every time you catch each other engaging in distracted driving, the perpetrator has to put a dollar in a jar that goes towards a safe driving foundation. Eye-catching reminders like a painted red nail or a red string tied on the wheel can help remind them of the promises they’ve made to drive responsibly.

Utilize Technology

Many smartphones have built-in features you can activate to keep yourself focused behind the wheel. iPhones have a feature called Do Not Disturb, which will automatically activate when connected to the car via Bluetooth, or when the phone senses driving motion. The feature will keep the phone silent and dark, but not off. If someone texts your teen while driving, the sender will receive an automatic reply letting them know that they’re driving and will see their messages when they arrive at their destination.

Distracted driving is a serious threat to teen lives, but with the right education and encouragement at home, you can breathe easier while they’re out on the road—knowing they’re focused on getting home safely. “If there’s anything I can get across to [teens],” says Julie Garner, “it’s this: Please know how much you’re loved. How much you mean to so many. Don’t throw away your future because of a bad decision. Have fun and experience life to the fullest – just don’t do stupid things. If Hunter was around, he’d tell you the same thing.”