RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—"Car crashes are the number one cause of death for teenagers," Ann Shoket, editor-in-chief of Seventeen magazine, said at the Department of Transportation's recent two-day Distracted Driving Summit. "More than drugs, more than disease, and more than guns." Shoket was hosting a panel discussion on the dangers of driving while text-messaging, which included two drivers who had caused accidents while doing so. Teen driving safety was a major issue at the summit, with many safety experts noting that teens have the highest crash rates but are also the least capable of multitasking.
"Texting and driving was something I'd done many times before," said Reggie Shaw, now 22, who caused a fatal head-on collision in Utah that killed two other drivers when he was 19. "But there's no excuse for what I did." Shaw now travels to high schools around Utah educating teenage drivers about the dangers of driving while text-messaging. "I can't drive down the road without thinking about what happened to me, what I did."
"We think we're invincible," added Nicole Meredith, who had an accident when she was 18. She was driving down the highway going 70 miles an hour, when, while she was texting a friend, she drifted onto the median, overcorrected, and ended up smashing her car into concrete barriers on the other side of the highway. "We think we can text, that we can call people, blast music. We think we're doing everything fine, and we're really not."
So how can you help your teenage driver from becoming a statistic? Here are some tips offered by Shoket and other youth safety advocates at the summit:
#1: Start with a conversation. Simply letting teenagers know about the dangers of driving while text messaging can send a strong message. "I was never taught in driver's ed or in school the dangers of it," said Shaw. "I'd never heard of a case where someone had been in accident for texting and driving, and I didn't realize how dangerous it was." And don't just focus on texting. "There are so many ways to get distracted, not just texting," said Shoket. Hit them with some statistics if need be. The Department of Transportation estimates that 6,000 people die every year from distracted driving. Research conducted by Seventeen found that most driving-while-texting accidents among teens happen between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., when they're driving home from school.
#2: Know the laws. If teens know that they could face up to 90 days in jail just for driving while text-messaging, or they could spend 15 years in prison for causing a fatality (which are now laws in Utah), they think twice about sending that note to their friends, said Shaw. "That would have been enough for me," he added. Find out what the regulations are in your state and make sure your teen knows them. They can be extremely helpful warning tools.
#3: Don't be subtle. Teens respond to harsh reality, said Shoket, and it helps to make it as real as possible. Share stories like Nicole's with them (a profile of Nicole was published in the August issue of Seventeen), Shoket said. "We need a lot more 'in-your-face' about what texting and driving can do," added Meredith. She brought up an extremely graphic public-service announcement released by a British police department that shows a texting teenager getting into a three-car pileup that results in two deaths in her car. "Just seeing that could change someone's perspective," she said. (Search Youtube to see the video; be aware that it's very violent.)
#4: Set clear rules and make sure the consequences have teeth. According to one survey, cellphone use while driving is 30 percent lower among teens whose parents set clear rules. "There are three very important things to a teen: their cellphone, their driver's license, and their keys," said Sandy Spavone, executive director for the National Organizations for Youth Safety. Let your kids know that if you find out they've been driving while text-messaging, you'll take all three away. "The parent has the power," said Spavone. After all, you are paying the bills. "If they're using the phones too much, take them away."
#5: Set a good example. "The research shows that parents can have a huge influence on their children," said Janet Froetscher, president and chief executive officer of the National Safety Council. You can let them know that it's unacceptable for them to be on the phone, but setting a good example is even more powerful. "They watch what you do." On the road, off the phone should be the rule for everyone.
Published on: October 2, 2009