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Driver distraction research: Important for parents to model safe driving behavior

April 26, 2016

A 2012 study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and Toyota Motor Sales USA, Inc., revealed a significant correlation between parent and teen driving-distraction behaviors, suggesting that parents play an influential role by the type of driving behavior that they model. 
"Children look to their parents for a model of what is acceptable," said Ray Bingham, research professor and head of UMTRI's Young Driver Behavior and Injury Prevention Group. "Parents should know that every time they get behind the wheel with their child in the car they are providing a visible example that their child is likely to follow." 
Bingham recently highlighted the research at the Michigan Traffic Safety Summit in East Lansing as part of a panel on distracted driving. April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. 
As part of the study, UMTRI and Toyota researchers surveyed more than 2,600 newly licensed U.S. drivers ages 16-18 and nearly 3,000 parents of drivers in this age group, including 400 pairs of teens and parents from the same households, during August and September 2012. They found that parents who more frequently engage in driving-distraction behaviors have teens who engage in distracting behaviors more frequently than other young drivers. 
A key finding, however, is that what teens think their parents do while driving has a greater impact on teen behavior than what parents actually report they do. For example, if a teen's parent reports dealing with passenger issues while driving, the teen is twice as likely to do the same. But if a teen thinks his or her parent deals with passenger issues while driving, the teen is five times more likely to do so themselves. 
Likewise, if a teen's parent reports looking for something in the vehicle while driving or reports eating or drinking while driving, the teen is twice as likely to do the same, but is four times more likely if he or she thinks his or her parent looks for something in the vehicle while driving and three times more likely to eat or drink behind the wheel. 
"Overall, teens think that their parents engage in distracted driving behaviors more often than may be the case, which may allow them to justify certain high-risk behaviors behind the wheel," Bingham said. 
Another major finding from the study is that parents may underestimate how much their teens text while driving. More than a quarter of teens (26 percent) read or send a text message at least once every time they drive, although only 1 percent of their parents said their teen did this. 
The study, sponsored by Toyota's Collaborative Safety Research Center, was designed to shed new light on frequently discussed driving risks and to identify effective recommendations to help keep teens safe and help parents serve as more effective driving role models. It also looked at a range of risk factors that receive less public attention, but pose great risks on the road, as well as the role parents and peers play in encouraging distracted-driving behaviors. 
"Driver education begins the day a child's car seat is turned around to face front," said Tina Sayer, CSRC principal engineer and teen safe-driving expert. "As the study shows, the actions parents take and, by extension, the expectations they set for young drivers each day are powerful factors in encouraging safe behavior behind the wheel. Seat belts and good defensive driving skills are critical. However, the one piece of advice I would give to parents to help them keep newly licensed drivers safe on the road is to always be the driver you want your teen to be." 
Adapted from “Driver Distraction: Do as I Say, Not as I Do (or What You Think I Do)” by Bernie DeGroat, Michigan News, 2012, 
Photo courtesy of UMTRI Young Driver Behavior and Injury Prevention Group