Teenaged drivers make up the lowest percentage of licensed drivers on the road, yet they are statistically more at risk for motor vehicle crashes. The combination of being new to driving and being less likely to block out distractions puts them in more danger than the average adult every time they’re behind the wheel.
Cellphone use is one common risky driving behavior that both teens and adults engage in. A recent study that we conducted at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital looked at the connection between cellphone laws and the frequency of talking on the phone while driving among teens.
The study found that over half (53%) of the participants reported talking on their cellphone while driving at least once in the last thirty days. The percentage varied widely, however, depending on the type of cellphone laws in each state: no ban, young driver cellphone ban, or handheld device ban for drivers of all ages.
Study participants who were from states that had bans on both young driver cellphone use and handheld devices for all drivers were 19% less likely to talk on the phone while driving than participants from states with no bans in place, and 23% less likely to talk on the phone while driving than those from states with only young driver cellphone bans.
The frequency of talking on a cellphone while driving was highest among older teens and lowest for younger teens. Also, more white teenagers (60%) talked on the phone while driving at least once, compared to teens of other races and ethnicities (42% for Black or African American participants and 45% for Hispanic participants).
Talking on a cellphone while driving is a common but risky behavior among teen drivers. We encourage states to consider implementing both types of bans to normalize distraction-free driving and promote a safer driving culture for everyone on the road.
Because driving is a learned behavior and caregivers are the primary role models for teen drivers, it makes sense for states to implement handheld device bans, regardless of driver age. Putting these laws in place across the board will mean that teens won’t receive mixed messages about the dangers of distractions like calling while driving. Additionally, keep in mind that laws don’t have to be in place to make you drive without distractions. Being safe because it’s the right thing to do is one of the most important driving lessons you can teach your teenager.
To reinforce handheld device bans and emphasize the importance of safety behind the wheel, pediatricians can discuss the dangers of distracted driving with teens during yearly physical exams. Putting today’s technology to good use will be useful as well: using hands-free options and settings (such as Do Not Disturb) or apps that block cellular use while driving should be recommended for everyone’s safety.
Although young driver cellphone bans target a group of vulnerable road users, laws that promote safe driving behavior irrespective of age will result in safer driving habits and safer roads for all drivers.
Motao Zhu, MD, MS, PhD, is a professor of pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and The Ohio State University College of Medicine.
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