Teenagers text while driving even when they are aware of the dangers of using smartphones behind the wheel, according to a new US study.
“We like to think about it as driver inattention. We think about inattention relative to their hands on the wheel, eyes on the road and mind on the task of driving,” said Catherine McDonald, assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, who led the study.
The researchers conducted focus groups examining distracted driving with 30 teenagers (16- to 18-year-olds) and analysed what they learned.
The ultimate goal of the study was to develop an intervention to keep teens safe on the roadways.
The researchers first had to understand the teenagers’ perspective. Cell-phone use and fellow passengers emerged as the two central issues.
Though the former can be an issue for anyone behind the wheel, the latter was particularly poignant to this group, all of whom had been driving for a year or less.
Across the board, the teens said they understood the dangers of texting while driving, but they still engaged in the behaviours.
Some teens said they did not do it – until the researchers dug a little deeper and found out what that really meant.
“In their responses the teens would indicate that they didn’t text and drive, but then later would say something like, ‘At a red light, I’ll check my phone,'” McDonald said.
The data also helped them understand how teens differentiated between texting and social media use; checking Twitter, for example, was not texting while driving. Neither was taking a passenger’s picture.
“Whoever was involved on the other side of that communication was relevant to whether they texted or talked (or did neither),” McDonald said.
For instance, a significant other or parent yielded often and urgent response, but a random friend did not.
A question connected to the reason for driving, for example, from a person the driver was meeting, more frequently got a reply than did an unrelated query.
When it came to questions about passengers as distractors, McDonald said many teens balked at the very idea, until they discussed it among themselves.
“We know that peer passengers greatly increase the risk for fatal crashes among teen drivers,” McDonald said.
“Relative risk climbs with number. If you go from one passenger to two, you can just see the risk (increase),” said Marilyn (Lynn) Sommers, Professor of Medical-Surgical Nursing at Penn Nursing.
The study was published in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention.