Dr. Beth Ebel, a Seattle Children’s pediatrician and former director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center (HIPRC), addresses questions about the dangers of using cell phones to text and talk while driving. Thank you to Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician at The Everett Clinic in Mill Creek, a member of Seattle Children’s medical staff and executive director of Digital Health, and author of the Seattle Mama Doc blog, for submitting these questions.
Q: What progress has been made to change behaviors regarding texting and talking on cell phones while driving?
A: There’s good news and bad news, based on an observational study conducted by the University of Washington (UW) and HIPRC.
After the UW/HIPRC study found in 2013 that one in 10 drivers in Washington used a cell phone to talk, text or type while driving, an update conducted in 2014 found that the number of distracted drivers had decreased to one in 12. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the proportion of distracted drivers who were texting or pushing buttons on their cell phone – an especially risky behavior – increased from one half in 2013 to nearly two thirds in 2014.
Q: Why is texting and driving especially dangerous?
A: Driving while texting is distracting in every way. Eyes are off the road. Hands are off the wheel. And the brain’s attention is diverted elsewhere.
We have highly conditioned ourselves to respond to our cell phone’s ringtone and text notification, just like Pavlov’s dog. Drivers are 23 times more likely to get in a crash if they’re texting than if they’re not distracted. That’s equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.19% – more than double the legal 0.08% limit.
Driving while talking on a cell phone is also dangerous. The risk of a crash is four times higher – equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08%.
Q: What are the national rates for distracted driving and what are they in the Puget Sound area?
A: The distracted driving rate (texting or talking on a cell phone) in King County fell to 8.4% in 2014 from 9% in 2013, according to the latest HIPRC distracted driving report card (PDF).
That is slightly higher than 2012 national data (PDF) from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which found that 1.5% of drivers were texting or visibly manipulating handheld devices while driving, and 5% were holding cell phones to their ears.
Q: What can parents do to model responsible behavior regarding cell phones and driving?
A: Kids learn more from the example we set than what we say. Parents can start by putting away their cell phones while driving.
Since a GPS (global positioning system) can also be a distraction, drivers shouldn’t rely on GPS alone. All drivers – but especially new drivers – should plan their routes and think ahead about merges, exits, etc., before pulling out of the driveway. Drivers should use voice-controlled GPS systems so they can keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel.
Parents should make a clear contract with teen drivers that ALL cell phone use – texting or talking – is prohibited while driving. They should also agree to follow the same rule and include seatbelt use in the agreement.
Q: Can you detail specific risks for young teen drivers when it comes to cell phone use?
A: The UW/HIPRC research shows that cell phone use and texting while driving is particularly risky for new drivers who are also trying to integrate driving skills.
By “risky,” I mean absolutely life-threatening – for the teen and for others on the road.
The National Safety Council reports that one in four traffic accidents involve cell phones. The NHTSA reports that driver distraction – cell phone use but also other visual diversions – was the cause of 18% of all fatal crashes in 2012 and led to 3,328 deaths.
Q: Are any of the public health campaigns, videos and public service announcements worth sharing with parents and patients/teens?
A: My favorite is the Volkswagen PSA. You may also share these videos of distracted drivers in Washington, which serve as a good discussion point for teens.
Q: What laws are in place to protect teen drivers from the risks of distraction?
A: Washington prohibits ALL cell phone use for new drivers – hand-held or hands-free. State law also prohibits all drivers, regardless of age or experience, from talking or texting on a hand-held phone while driving. Law enforcement officers view distraction the same as impaired driving, so everyone needs to pay attention to current laws and put down the phone.