Making sure your children aren’t driving distracted

A new study released by the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine attempts to show just how dangerous distracted driving can be for young people. The report states that drivers, especially young and inexperienced ones, are at a far greater risk to get into a car accident when they get distracted by things like cell phones, looking at roadside scenery or eating while driving.

And while the study’s findings aren’t exactly groundbreaking, it is cold hard proof of just how serious a problem distracted driving has become in the mobile communication era.

So, if we all know that distracted driving is dangerous, what can we do to make sure the message sticks with young drivers, most of whom have grown up with a cell phone always within reach? It’s a question Maria McMahon, MSN, manager of the Trauma Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, has spent a lot of time thinking about. “As a mother, one of my biggest fears was my son getting his license,” she says. “Cars are dangerous machines. When you factor in all the mistakes a young, inexperienced driver can make, even without distractions, it’s more than enough to scare any parent.”

To start, McMahon suggests parents do a little personal reflection on their own driving habits. Like many aspects of parenting, leading by example is one of the best ways to instill safe driving skills in your children.

“It may not always seem like it, but teenagers really do listen to their parents and pay attention to what they do, including how they behave behind the wheel,” she says. “If you expect your teen to focus on the road when driving, you need to do it yourself, especially when in the car with them. A ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach sets a dangerous precedent, especially for something like distracted driving, which can have such serious consequences.”

If your son or daughter recently got their license—or  is about to get one–McMahon says you need to set clear ground rules early and be firm about enforcing them. Simple, straightforward ultimatums like always wear a seatbelt and no talking/texting while driving may not be easy to enforce when you’re not in the car with them, but constantly reminding your young driver that those are your expectations will help drive home how serious you are about the issue.

Maria McMahon, MSN

“I know in the modern era we’ve grown accustomed to being constantly connected, but there really is no conversation so important, outside of an emergency, that a driver needs to be engaged in while driving,” she says. “We need to tell our kids, ‘if a text or call is so important you need to answer it on the spot, it’s important enough to pull over for, even if it means being a little late to wherever it is you’re going.'”

If you’re particularly worried that parental expectations alone aren’t enough to keep your child from calling or texting while driving, you may want to consider asking to see her phone every now and again, checking the times and dates of sent texts and calls against times when you know she was driving. Your teen will likely see it as an invasion of privacy, but if you’re truly concerned she’s a habitual distracted driver, it may be worth the fight.

“Taking an inventory of when and how often a teenager is texting during times she’s supposed to be driving probably won’t work in every household, but for some families it could be enough to keep the child off the phone when behind the wheel,” McMahon says. “Distracted driving can kill. It’s that serious. So if it takes measures that seem a little extreme to make sure your child is driving safe, it may not be such a terrible idea.”