Distracted Driving Is On The Rise — And Parents May Be To Blame

A small study suggests that parents with children in the car are more likely to text and drive. Wait, what?

by Michael Frank
Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images, Shutterstock

According to the latest study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), distracted driving killed at least 3,000 people in 2020. This is undoubtedly a low ball number.The IIHS cautions that distracted driving is almost surely far more likely the cause of accidents than can be clearly quantified “due to the difficulties of proving distraction at the scene of a crash.”

If you’re tsk-tsk-ing the rising generation of screen-addicted drivers, stop yourself right there. “Parents were much more likely to use their devices while driving than participants who did not have young children or teenage children in their cars,” says Aimee Cox, a research associate at the IIHS and the author of that study. She says not only that in interviewing over 2,000 drivers did they learn that parents were more likely to text and drive, but that parents of children 18 and younger had 65% higher odds of fiddling with their phones while driving. We wish this meant sending the occasional voice to text but we’re talking about much more egregious acts like FaceTiming behind the wheel and reading social media on the phone while driving.

We talked to Cox about what she thinks is going on here — and what we can all do about it to make our roads safer for ourselves and our kids.

Parent and teen distracted driving behavior are correlated.

I think most of our readers would be alarmed that parents lead almost all groups of drivers who do so distractedly. Did this surprise you?

It did and it didn’t. I think that parents engaging in activities that can’t be done hands-free surprised us, but these younger parents learned from their parents. You would think, oftentimes, it's the teen drivers that are the problem, and drivers say ‘I'm not the problem; It's everyone else on the road.’ But other research has found parent and teen distracted driving behavior are correlated.

Just to be clear, that research indicates this is a learned practice? The teen grows into a parent and engages in this behavior because dad or mom did it while driving?

Yes, and it’s learned well before a child begins to drive or is a teen. Then you see that these parents were much more likely to use their devices while driving than participants who did not have young children or teenage children in their cars. So it's certainly concerning.

You asked participants about whether they perceived the behavior as dangerous as well, right?

Certainly, we found that 73% of people agreed that driving distracted is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

Okay, but there’s an obvious disconnect. People are nodding in agreement, like a parent has chided a child that they shouldn’t skateboard indoors and they go ‘Yeah, dad, you’re right,’ but then they go ahead and do it anyway.

Yes. And that's consistent with what other research on distracted driving has found. Drivers will often say ‘Yes, the behavior is risky,’ but then do it themselves.

And your research may have also revealed a way out of this cognitive dissonance.

There’s something called the health belief model that we see with vaccination behavior. Say your own parents tell you that you got a measles vaccine when you were such and such an age, and they also tell you about the risk of getting diseases. That’s the health belief model: It’s your parent reinforcing the idea that you should immunize your own kids because getting a disease could really be awful. Another example is a peer getting a cancer screening at a certain age and telling you about it and that makes you realize maybe you should do that, too.

Drivers will often say ‘Yes, the behavior is risky,’ but then do it themselves.

And how does that look when it comes to distracted driving?

So when it came to the interpersonal cues, it seemed that roughly 83% agreed that if I heard some sort of phrase from someone I cared about, like, for example, ‘You could hurt or kill someone’ or ‘Using your mobile device while driving isn't safe,’ those sorts phrases from loved ones could motivate drivers to put their phones down. Roughly 80% of people said those kinds of cues would influence them to end driving distracted.

Back to the idea of learning to drive distractedly by watching our parents: There are frequently teen driver agreements that were pioneered by insurers and now you see these from the likes of AAA. But that’s about convincing your kid not to text and drive. What you’re saying is that these agreements might have to be more of a partnership, right?

Some studies have found that teens who enter these contracts were less likely to engage in risky driving behavior. But since we’re seeing these results and these parents are setting an example for their children, putting these pieces together does shed light on the idea that these contracts have to hold each other accountable. And maybe that starts earlier, since we know from other research that the influence starts so early, way before you have a teen driver.

People in your survey also said they’d be open to technological solutions, too.

More than half said they would support using some sort of technology to prevent device based distractions while driving. Any Samsung or Android or Apple phone has a Do Not Disturb function. And it’s important to note that right now the current setup is that you have to opt in to that function, but 66% of the people we talked to said they’d wished that was just the default. So just that little change could help tune out those distractions.

You’ve said that we need a sort of all-of-the-above approach to fixing distracted driving. That’s the health belief model, where you have family members or friends encouraging better behavior, reminding us, and maybe this tech piece, too. What else?

Enforcement. People say they’re okay with increased fines and over half not only backed increased enforcement, but also higher fines. We’ve also found in other research that more comprehensive cell phone bans — where in some states you get a ticket for even holding your phone while driving — resulted in significant decreases in rear end crash rates, which seems to be a good proxy for cell phone related distractions. So it’s possible that if we combine all these approaches that you’ll see drivers less likely to engage in this risky behavior, and that would save a lot of lives and also not lead to kids adopting this when they become drivers.