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Research Reveals Surprising Sources of Teen Driver Distraction

Research shows parents and other teenage passengers often play a significant role in distracting teenage drivers.

Car accidents are the top cause of death for teenagers, according to 2012 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2011, motor vehicle accidents claimed the lives of roughly 2,650 teens and caused injuries to another 292,000, including some in Kansas City. Statistics suggest distracted driving contributes to many of these accidents.

Distracted behaviors are more prevalent among teens than other drivers; distraction plays a known role in 10 percent of fatal teen accidents, according to Distracted driving among teens is often chalked up to inexperience or poor decision-making. Surprisingly, though, new research suggests that many of the distractions teens face are due to other people.

Passenger Behavior

Peers can be a significant source of distraction for teens. A recent University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center study monitored 52 teenage drivers with in-vehicle video cameras and produced the following findings:

  • The teen drivers were more likely to experience serious incidents – such as needing to make a sudden maneuver to avoid an accident – when they had multiple teenage passengers.
  • When teenage passengers engaged in horseplay, the teenage driver was three times more likely to experience a serious incident.
  • Serious incidents were six times more likely when teenage passengers were simply talking loudly.

Researchers noted that teenage drivers were less likely to use phones, in-car technology and other devices when they had other teenagers in the vehicle, which is an encouraging finding. Surprisingly, though, these sorts of distraction were less likely to result in serious incidents compared to distractions caused by other people.

Researchers theorized that this difference occurs because drivers can control certain distractions, such as texting, adjusting vehicle controls or reaching for objects inside the car. Drivers have little control over passenger behavior, which can make it significantly more distracting.

Parental Expectations

Surprisingly, parents also frequently contribute to distracted driving among teens. A study recently presented at the American Psychological Association’s yearly conference, which surveyed 408 teens, found that more than half of those who talked on the phone while driving were talking to their parents, according to NBC News.

When asked why they talked on cellphones despite knowing it was dangerous, some teenagers cited their parents’ insistence that they always be reachable by phone. Some mentioned that their parents would simply keep calling until getting an answer. Other participants stated that their parents regularly use their own cellphones while driving.

Parents should be aware of the ways they may be normalizing and promoting dangerous distracted driving behaviors. Parents can reduce the risk of their own children experiencing accidents and injuries by modeling safe behaviors and giving their teens alternatives to checking in by texting or talking while driving.

Unfortunately, even if a parent teaches his or her own teenager safe driving habits, other distracted young drivers may still cause accidents with serious consequences. Anyone who has been hurt in a distracted driving accident should think about meeting with an attorney to discuss seeking compensation.