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Parents and Teens Learn the Way to Safety

Distracted driving is responsible for more than 3,000 deaths and over 400,000 injuries per year. We all know it’s dangerous – who among us hasn’t yelled at the person who drifts into our lane to “put the phone down!” or “pay attention!”? And how many of us have been that person drifting into the other lane because we were doing something else when we should have had our attention focused squarely on the road? Despite knowing it’s a terrible horrible no good very bad idea, it seems you can’t go too far down the road without seeing someone multitasking while driving – or maybe it’s you.

“Today, there are twice as many drivers actively using handheld electronic devices while driving than there were five years ago. Not surprisingly, crashes directly related to cellphone use while driving increased by 38 percent during same time period. This is not about increasing awareness of the risks – everyone already knows it’s dangerous,” said M. Kit Delgado, MD, MS, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine and Epidemiology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and affiliated faculty in Penn’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics.

Any activity that diverts a driver’s attention away from the road – whether it’s eating, grooming, reading a map, or using a cell phone – endangers the driver, passengers, and bystanders. But, because texting involves both a physical act and mental attention, it is by far the most concerning distraction. In fact, according to the U.S. federal government’s “Healthy People 2020” objectives, motor vehicle crashes due to distracted driving is the number one emerging issue in injury prevention that requires more attention and research.

Just in time for National Teen Driver Safety Week, researchers from Penn Medicine, the School of Nursing, and the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, are teaming up to learn how new technology might help to decrease cell phone use while driving in teens. But not so fast, Mom and Dad! Though nearly half of U.S. high school students admit to texting or checking their phone while driving, research suggests adult commuters might actually be worse with phone use while driving than teens. For that reason, this study is for the whole family. That’s right, the Way to Safety Family Study is tackling cell phone use in drivers of all ages by enrolling teen drivers and their parents/guardians as pairs.

Participants will be given windshield-mounted devices that will communicate with a mobile app to enact an automated “Car Mode” – similar to “Airplane Mode” – when vehicles are in motion. A “blocking” feature automatically activates when the vehicle reaches 10 miles per hour, locking the phone screen, silencing notifications, and sending automated responses to incoming text messages. But, an “opt-out” feature allows users to override the blocking.

Here’s the catch – if the teen chooses to override the blocking feature, a notification will be sent to the parent or guardian. What teen would sign up for that, you ask? Well, for half the participants, the study tests the effect of the teen also being notified when their parent/guardian overrides the blocking function. You might not want a little tattle-tale alerting your teen if you text while you’re driving, but the researchers hope that knowing your teen (or parent/guardian) will know if you’re breaking the rule will help hold participants accountable for dangerous actions, or reduce the temptation to use the phones while driving at all.

“Strategies are needed nip the impulse in the bud since we consistently act against our own best interests. It seems crazy to me that that there are government policies requiring the use of an Airplane Mode and there’s nothing similar for a ‘Car Mode,’ despite the epidemic of avoidable crashes and deaths that are being caused by operating a phone in the car,” said Delgado. “We’re testing ways to implement such a setting in way that nudges drivers to be safer. In this case, we’re using this setting to get around the ‘Do as I say, not as I do phenomenon’ with parents.  Hopefully, this extra level of intrafamily accountability will keep everyone safer.”


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