Each new school year means a new batch of teens get behind the wheel for the first time.  This is an exciting time for young people as the privilege to drive opens up new opportunities for independence.  It can also be a scary time for parents (and everyone else on the road). Besides learning the basics of vehicle safety and proper behavior on the road, teen drivers and their parents need to be cognizant of distracted driving.

Distracted driving is any non-driving activity a person engages in that has the potential to direct their attention away from the primary task of operating the vehicle. There are three main types of distractions:

  • Visual - taking your eyes off the road.
  • Manual - taking your hands off the wheel.
  • Cognitive - taking your mind off what you are doing.

Distractions are all around us and have always been something for motorists to avoid.  However, the popularity of mobile phones has put drivers especially at risk, particularly when it comes to texting. According to a University of Utah research study, using a mobile phone while driving, whether it is hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent.

"Many teens understand the risks of texting behind the wheel," said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, "but the desire to stay connected is so strong for teens and their parents that safety sometimes takes a backseat to staying in touch with friends and family."

According to data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, about one in four American teens of driving age say they have texted while driving. Meanwhile, nearly half of all teens between the ages of 12 and 17 said they have been passengers in a vehicle where the driver was texting.

The report also shows that gender is not an issue when it comes to texting and driving, as both boys and girls are equally as likely to report texting behind the wheel or riding with texting drivers.

"Cell phones are often seen as devices that can make our lives more efficient, allowing us to multi-task in our idle moments," said Mary Madden, senior research specialist and co-author of the report, "and whether you're a teenager or an adult, it's tempting to think you can manage several different activities at once."

Whether it concerns texting or any other type of distraction, it's important for parents to stress the need for safe behavior behind the wheel to teens just learning how to drive.

Ways to avoid distracted driving 

Parents need to make sure their children understand how dangerous using a mobile phone while driving can be. In fact, in most states, it's illegal to talk on a mobile phone or text while driving.

One way to drive this point home is for you to have your teen sign a pledge outlining what is expected of them when they're behind the wheel. Mobile phone use of any kind should be highlighted as a behavior to avoid. If this pledge is broken, you should make it clear that vehicle use will be revoked.

Additional steps on how to protect your children: 

  • Make sure you and your teen driver know the rules of the road in your state.
  • Establish rules and consequences to keep your teens from driving while distracted - i.e. check their phone logs and only allow one other passenger in the car with them.
  • Set a good example. Turn your phone off before you get behind the wheel, and put it out of reach until you reach your destination and can use it safely.
  • Encourage your teens to change their cell phone voicemail message to let callers know that they won't talk while they're driving, and that they'll call them back as soon as it is safe.
  • Teach your teens to drive defensively. Remind them that even though they don't drive while distracted, there are others who do.
  • Remind your teens that even a minor fender-bender can be deadly if a bicyclist or pedestrian is involved.
  • Finally, parents should encourage teens to not ride in vehicles with drivers who are known to engage in distracting behavior, whether it's mobile phone use or some other activity.

Adhering to these rules and making responsible driving a habit will go a long way towards ensuring the safety of your family as well as other drivers and pedestrians.