Driving + Inexperience + Texting = Trouble

This article is part of the #STCPreventionMatters campaign from the University of Maryland Medical Center. For more information about the campaign and the Center for Injury Prevention and Policy, visit: umm.edu/PreventionMatters.

Distracted driving is a growing problem with deadly consequences. In 2015 in the United States, almost 3,500 people were killed and 400,000 injured in car crashes involving distracted drivers.

We live in a society that is more and more connected with social media. It is easy to use— and addictive. The connection feels essential— and drivers often become anxious if they receive a text and do not see it or respond immediately. This adds to other distractions such as eating, changing the station on the radio, looking at GPS, or anything that takes your eyes from the road or your mind from driving. The problem is even worse for young drivers who are avid users of social media but are also inexperienced drivers who are more prone to crashes.

Simply put, distracted driving is driving while doing any another activity that takes your attention away from driving, including:

Visual: taking your eyes off the road

Manual: removing hands from the steering wheel

Cognitive: taking your mind off driving

A distraction like texting is one of the most risky situations since it involves these three major types of distraction.

Young Adult Brains Not Fully Developed— One might think that doing other tasks while operating a vehicle can be as simple as walking and chewing gum at the same time. But driving safely takes all of our attention when we are behind the wheel. A typical drive may involve paying attention to the road and cars ahead, recognizing changes in light and weather, interpreting what the cars to your side or ahead are doing, and planning and making appropriate reactions when any of these factors change.

From a developmental standpoint, the brain is not fully developed in people until they reach their mid- to late-20s, putting young drivers at particularly high risk. Young drivers are already inexperienced with all of the skills required for driving, including recognizing and handling different types of situations on the road. Additionally, teens are more likely to participate in risk-taking behavior, possibly setting the stage for disaster.

Consider how harmless it may seem to look down for ‘just a second’ at a text while driving. Studies show that the second is actually more like five seconds, and that at 55 miles per hour, the car is traveling the length of a football field— a distance where anything can happen.

Even when eyes are off the road for a few seconds and the car is travelling at slower speeds, the unexpected can occur with serious consequences.

The Multitasking Myth— Although many people are confident in doing several things at once, multitasking is a myth when it comes to driving. Even if a driver’s eyes are on the road, there may be “inattentional blindness” from the distractions of listening to music or a podcast, or attending to a passenger’s comments. Studies show that the entire road may not be processed by the brain in these situations and important cues to prevent crashes may be missed.

Serious Penalties— In Maryland, there are laws against distracted driving and using hand-held cell phones while behind the wheel. If you are found using a cell phone and/or looking down to text, you can get a ticket that carries an $83 fine for using the phone and an additional $70 fine specifically for texting. A distracted driving crash will also cost you three points on your license, and if that crash results in a fatality, you can be fined up to $5,000 and sentenced to one year in prison (Jake’s Law).

What Parents Can Do— Although laws are helpful, the best thing parents can do is model good behavior and put away their phone. The primary objective is to get to your destination safely. Parents should have a meaningful conversation with their teen about the dangers of distracted driving. Research has shown that parents are the most important influence on a teen’s driving behavior.

Richard Lichenstein, MD, is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a pediatric emergency physician at the University of Maryland Medical Children’s Hospital, chair of the Teen Safe Driving Coalition in Maryland and chair of the State Child Fatality Review Team.