A Research Psychologist’s Perspective On Distracted Driving and Teens

Few social trends in the United States are as startling as the staggering rates of texting-while-driving (TWD), especially among teens. Car accidents are the number one cause of death for adolescents and 10 percent of these incidents involve distracted driving (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).

Dr. Despina Stavrinos, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Alabama (UAB), has dedicated her career to reducing the prevalence of these avoidable tragedies. As the director of Translational Research for Injury Prevention (TRIP) Laboratory at UAB, Stavrinos studies how distraction effects motorists and what can be done to prevent it. Her work with TRIP focuses largely on vulnerable populations, including teenage drivers.

In anticipation of May as Teen Driver Safety Month, Traffic Safety Store reached out to  Stavrinos to discuss the realities of this epidemic and get tips on how to protect young drivers. The big take away: Treat distracted driving like drunk driving. It’s a similar state of impairment and can be addressed with some of the same  proven strategies.

To learn more about distracted driving, please consult distraction.gov

Traffic Safety Store (TSS): The popular assumption is that distracted driving means using a cell phone. But we can all remember times we lost focus without a hand held device. So what exactly is distracted driving and what causes it?

Despina Stavrinos (DS): There is a little bit of debate in the field about how we best define distracted driving, but recently a group of experts met internationally and decided on a definition. Basically, anything that diverts your attention from the primary task — in this case driving — could be considered a distraction. We think of distraction in three domains: a visual distraction, anything that takes your eyes off the road; a manual distraction, things that take your hands off the steering wheel. The third, which is a bit more difficult to characterize, especially in research, is cognitive distraction. Those are things that take your mind off the road.

You’re right, we tend to think of the cellphone when we think of distracted driving but there are a number of activities that would compete for one’s attention. Things like other passengers, other types of technology including “driverless” technologies like GPS or even using a blinker or touching various knobs. All those things take your attention off of the road. We do think of the cellphone as the most distracting thing. Researchers call it the “perfect storm.” It requires all three of those domains I mentioned. We tend to consider texting the most dangerous activity.

TSS: Just how big of a problem are we talking about with distracted driving? How bad could distracted driving get considering the pace of contemporary culture and proliferation of technology?

DS: Distracted driving obviously is a major public health issue. The numbers that have come out currently suggest nearly half a million drivers are injured each year due to distracted driving related incidents and several thousand dying each year due to these incidents. I’d bet that these numbers will continue to increase as technology continues to develop and become more pervasive in our lives.

It’s becoming more difficult to separate from our cell phones. That’s a really big challenge we’re faced with in the research world — how to come up with ways to mitigate the effects of distraction. It’s going to be difficult to ask people to just put the stuff away all together.

Technology can also play a key role in coming up with creative and effective ways to allow a driver to still stay connected, in some way, but be safer. I’m not convinced that we’re there yet, but a lot of automobile manufacturers are coming up with strategies that attempt to minimize the amount of time drivers have to take their eyes off the road. So there are things like voice activated systems. Those help a little bit. They keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the steering wheel. The problem is that cognitive distraction. I’m not sure we really know how to mitigate the effects of cognitive distraction and that’s what makes [cellular communication] very, very dangerous.

TSS: Talk a little bit about TRIP Labs. What’s unique about what you guys are doing and why is it important?

DS: Typically, when you think of transportation, you think of engineering and engineering has come a long way in terms of making the roads safer and making cars safer. However, they can only do so to a certain extent. There’s that whole driver factor at play. As psychologists, we’re looking at behavioral strategies to understand distraction and analyze it. There’s this shift to study prevention of distraction of a driver on an individual basis. I think that’s what makes us different.

 TSS: You research ADHD as well. And you look at ADHD as a risk factor in distracted driving. Who else is at risk for distracted driving?

DS: Our research suggests that everyone, not just high-risk people with ADHD can be affected by distracted driving. We  looked at other vulnerable populations including college students, older adults, and other risky driver.  We even looked at what is arguably the most experienced drivers on the road, truck drivers. We’re finding the same thing across all these populations: Distraction affects everyone.

How it affects everyone might be a little different. The truck drivers are an interesting segment because for that population, talking on a cellphone ,  as we’ve shown and other studies suggest, has a bit of a protective effect. They’re on the road for many, many hours every week. A cell phone actually helps keep them awake. It’s not a one-size-fits all sort of thing.

Distraction really does  affect everyone. The challenge is going to be how to convince the driver of that. They want their cell phone, they want to stay connected, and what happens is drivers use their cell phones behind the wheel with pretty great frequency. They may send twenty or thirty texts and nothing happens. It reinforces that “hey, I can do this. I’ve done it for the past few years and nothing has happened to me.” The problem is going to be when some unexpected event occurs and they’re not going to be prepared. We look at those kinds of issues at TRIP lab and everyone overestimates their ability.

 TSS: Are there certain indicators that a teen might be prone to diving distracted?

DS: I can’t think of a particular risk factor, but we do get a lot of variability in terms of who is actually engaging in dangerous behavior. The research is still in it’s infancy in that particular area, but we are looking into that issue.

 TSS: You brought up that car and cellphone companies are addressing distracted driving through technology.  Do these solutions work?

DS: There’s cellphone mitigation software that really does work for teens because parents still can exercise some degree of control over what their teens do. They can install these apps and limit the teens ability to engage in distracted driving. It’s more of a problem with adults, when we have to install this app on our own phone and actually trust our ability to limit cell phone use.

Some cellphones come with mitigation apps already installed. For example, DriveSafe automatically sends a text back to anyone who texts you while you’re driving that says, “Sorry I’m driving right now. I’ll get back to you soon.” Problem is, you can disable that. And many people are disabling those apps because, again, they just really want to stay connected while they’re driving.

Parents are obviously role models. When the parent is engaging in distracted driving, the teen is watching that and they’re learning a lot about what is and appropriate and inappropriate behind the wheel.

 TSS: I’ve heard about drivers contracts and other written agreements between parents and adolescents. What kinds of guidelines should parents follow to establish good communication with their teen about distracted driving?

DS: Distracted driving is a relatively new area [of concern]. We want to get distracted driving to be viewed like the drunk driving. Driving contracts really did seem to show some change in teens behavior– so signing something and setting up guidelines for what’s appropriate and inappropriate.

Parents report significantly high engagement with distracted driving despite the fact that they know it’s a dangerous activity and that they don’t want their teens engaging in it. Again, it’s modeling that good behavior and then setting rules and guidelines. For instance, if you really cannot stop and cannot put it down, then pull over. We also suggest that teens have a designated texter, modeling after drunk driving [prevention]. The designated texter is someone inside the vehicle who can return texts for the teen driver. They’re still meeting their needs for social connectedness, but doing it in a safe manner.

TSS: Is there the same kind of risks associated with distracted walking and distracted bicycling?

DS: Absolutely. We’ve done a number of studies looking at distracted walking. We’ve looked at in young children and we’ve also looked at it in college students. Some of the same decrements in performance that we see with distracted driving we see with distracted walking.

TSS: Distracted driving affects more than the driver. What does a parent tell a child or teen about distracted drivers so they can be safe passengers?

DS: Texting is against the law in many states. So that’s the first thing, “Hey, this is against the law. It’s dangerous behavior and it can have serious consequences.” If you go on distraction.gov you can find a lot of examples. Some of the cell phone companies have come out with [public service announcements] showing how distracted driving can really impact one’s life and not just the driver but others who are involved in the incident. In one case, there was a kid who actually killed someone by texting and driving. Now he’s in jail. Those are the kind of examples we can share to show that this is a real issue, that it is like drunk driving. One text can change their life forever. It’s not worth it. Driving that message home is very important.   Image Credit: TRIP Laboratory