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Distracted driving is responsible for more than 3,000 deaths and more than 400,000 injuries each year. Everyone knows it’s dangerous – who among us hasn’t yelled at the driver who drifts into our lane to “put the phone down!” or “pay atten­tion!”? And how many of us have been that driver drifting into the other lane because we were doing something else when we should have had our attention focused on the road? 

“Today, there are twice as many drivers actively using hand­held electronic devices while driving as there were five years ago,” says M. Kit Delgado, M.D., M.S., an assistant professor  of emergency medicine and epidemiology who is affiliated with Penn’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Eco­nomics. “Not surprisingly, crashes directly related to cell phone use while driving increased by 38 percent during the same time period. This is not about increasing awareness of the risks – everyone already knows it’s dangerous.”

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 because of distracted driving is the number one emerging issue in injury prevention that requires more attention and research.

Given these alarming statistics, researchers from Penn Medicine, the School of Nursing, and the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Phila­delphia have teamed up to study the pervasive problem. Using windshield-mounted devices that communicate with a mobile app to measure cell phone use while vehicles are in motion, the team hopes the Way to Safety 2.0 and 3.0 studies will provide a better understanding of how technology can reduce dis­tracted driving crashes and engage teens and their families in ways that promote better driving behavior. 

Participants are given the windshield-mounted devices. When vehicles are in motion, the devices communicate with a mobile app to enact an automated “Car Mode” – similar to “Airplane Mode.” 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.

Nearly complete, the Way to Safety 2.0 study focused spe­cifically on novice teen drivers. But, while nearly half of U.S. high school students admit to texting or checking their phones while driving, research suggests that adult drivers might actually be worse when it comes to using phones. For that reason, the Way to Safety 3.0 study is for the whole family. 

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. In the new study, if a teen chooses to over­ride the blocking feature and use the phone while driving, the device will send a notification to the parent or guardian. Would any teen sign up for that, you ask? Well, for half the participants, the study also tests the effect when the teens are notified that 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 all participants accountable for dangerous actions – or reduce the temptation to use the phones while driving at all.

In future research, Delgado is interested in seeing if fre­quently delivered behavioral incentives, such as discounts on insurance premiums, could facilitate adoption of these tech­nological interventions and motivate drivers to stay engaged in using them as a way for the entire family to reduce cell phone distractions while driving. 

“Strategies are needed to nip the impulse in the bud since we consistently act against our own best interests,” Delgado says. “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.” He also points out that the researchers are testing ways to implement such a setting in ways that nudge 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.”  

Contributing writer: Sharlene George