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Driven to Distraction: Teens Behind the Wheel

Cell phones, music, partying passengers. With so much competing for teens' attention, it can be hard for them to stay focused behind the wheel.
Teen driving
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Eddie Guy

Reggie Shaw doesn't remember much about the crash. In the early morning of September 22, 2006, he was driving to work on a two-lane country road in Logan, Utah, when his car crossed the center line and clipped an oncoming vehicle. What happened next was so traumatic that Shaw's 19-year-old mind blocked out the details: The other car swung out of control and was hit broadside by a pickup truck. Though neither Shaw nor the truck driver was hurt, two men in the other car were killed instantly. "I was in total shock," Shaw says.

How could something so horrible have happened on a routine morning drive? The answer came in a forgotten detail revealed by phone records. At the time of the deadly collision, Shaw had been sending a text message. "Texting while driving was something I did all the time," he admits. "I never imagined a simple message could change lives forever. It was an ignorant, terrible, selfish choice that will haunt me for the rest of my life."

Sentenced to 30 days in jail, 200 hours of community service, and a year's probation for negligent homicide, Shaw got off easy. The outcry over his case led Utah to pass tough new laws banning texting while driving, and to stiffen fines and jail time for violators.

Distracted driving has become epidemic for a generation of kids who have grown up with technology at their fingertips. Between 1999 and 2008, deadly nighttime crashes involving drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 increased by 10 percent—and researchers largely blame driver distraction on texting or talking on cell phones. Today, 30 states and the District of Columbia forbid texting behind the wheel, and 28 ban any type of handheld cell phone use by novice drivers. Other states are considering graduated licensing laws that restrict young drivers from using mobile electronics until they're older and more experienced (see "Learning Curve"). A federal law is in the works as well. "It's definitely a hot-button issue," says Judie Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "I've never seen so much legislative activity over a safety concern."

But laws alone aren't enough to keep kids focused on the road, and restricting mobile devices doesn't bring crash rates down. That's because enforcement isn't the only issue, according to Flaura Winston, PhD, principal investigator at the Young Driver Research Initiative, a collaboration between Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance. "Most laws ban only handheld phones, but hands-free phones are just as distracting," she says. "While physically holding a device is dangerous, a kid talking hands-free is also likely to stop scanning the road and stare straight ahead. It's like having tunnel vision."

Almost 90 percent of teens say they've seen other kids talk on phones behind the wheel, according to the Young Driver Research Initiative. And since young drivers are already disadvantaged by their inexperience, this type of diversion adds yet another layer of danger.

The good news is that kids who don't pay attention to laws can still be persuaded to drive more safely—by you. "Parents who talk about distractions and set rules can reduce the likelihood of teens using cell phones by 30 percent and slash their crash risk by half," Winston says. The first step? Make sure kids are well-versed in the sad, scary facts.