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Moms, Laws, and Apps Help Teens Avoid Distracted Driving

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Stop texting while driving

2010 Grand Prize Winner in Middle School Category, by Min Joo Kim, age 14, grade 8

Three recent studies suggest that mothers as passengers, state laws that ban texting while driving, and certain apps can all help teens drive without being distracted, according to recent articles. A study from lead author Dr. Beth Ebel at the University of Washington School of Medicine, finds that a smartphone app that turns off a teen’s cell service when the vehicle’s ignition is turned on can help reduce the risk of accidents. Another study, from lead author Eva Telzer, at the University of Illinois, finds that having his or her mother in the car helps a teen to make safer decisions while driving. And a new analysis of nationwide surveys finds that following statewide bans on texting while driving, teens report texting less, as Kathryn Doyle reports for Reuters Health, in an article in Huff Post Politics.

In an article on, Ebel told Health Day News (HDN) that her research team decided to eliminate the possibility of phone use in a car altogether, because most teens are compelled to respond when their phones ring. The team separated 29 drivers between the ages of 15 and 18 into three groups, and followed them for six months, HDN writes. The first group of drivers were left “as is;” and the cars for the second group were equipped with a bi-directional video camera on the rearview mirror, and linked to an accelerometer. The camera recorded all high-risk behaviors, like sudden braking, and swerving. The team added the same camera to cars for the third group of teens, along with a programmable device that blocked all calls and texts on smartphones that were linked, via an app, to the cars’ ignition.

HDN writes:

Ebel said the phone-block device and app are inexpensive and widely commercially available. The camera device is sometimes provided by car insurance companies for free to new drivers, she noted.

Teens who drove cars outfitted with either the camera alone or the camera plus the phone-blocking technology saw their frequency of high-risk driving events drop by almost 80 percent, the researchers found.

Kara Macek, communications director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, says in the HDN article that parents “hold the key” to safe teen driving. “The more we can get parents to implement these new technological tools and really engage in the process with their novice drivers, the greater chance we have of preventing teen driver crashes and the resulting injuries and fatalities,” Macek said.

And that leads us to the University of Illinois study, which found that 25 teens using a driving simulator with and without their mothers present took fewer risks when their mothers were there, as Cari Romm writes for Live Science, in an article on Yahoo! News. The researchers encouraged the teens to take risks, asking them to complete the simulation as quickly as possible, Romm writes.

The teens had to navigate through 26 intersections, with the option of stopping or not stopping at the yellow lights. “Driving alone, the participants ran through the yellow lights around 55 percent of the time, but when mom was there, that rate dropped to 45 percent,” Romm writes. The study found that the brain activity of teen drivers whose mothers were with them actually changed, Romm writes. The fMRI images showed that the teens’ brains’ rewards centers lit up when they made the safer choice to stop at the yellow lights, she adds.

Finally, Doyle writes that researchers at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, found in a new analysis of nationwide surveys, that teens report less texting after statewide bans. Senior investigator Dr. Andrew Adesman told Doyle that although it is great that the rates of texting while driving seems to be lessening, almost a third of teens report that they have engaged in the behavior in the previous month.

Steven Seiler, of Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, told Doyle that the new research is dependent on two different random samples of teens, at two different times. “The trouble is a lot of the data on texting and driving is anecdotal at best, so it’s hard to make the connection with the laws,” Seiler said.

Adesman’s colleague Alexis Tchaconas, who presented the team’s data at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in San Diego last Saturday, told Doyle that texting while driving is four times more common among U.S. high school students than driving under the influence of alcohol. Adesman said smartphones can easily be programmed to deactivate texting while the phone is in motion.


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