By Leslie Davis
Even if they haven't been driving for very long, teens are notorious for thinking they own the road. They also think that driving is something they can easily do while doing other things, such as talking on the phone, eating a burger or, even more dangerously, texting.
Texting while driving is more dangerous than driving while intoxicated, yet about a quarter of teens have texted while driving, according to a survey by The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. The few seconds they take their eyes off the road to send a flirtatious text, let a friend know they're on their way or check in with their parents can be deadly. In 2008, 16 percent of drivers in fatal crashes under the age of 20 involved distracted driving, including texting, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Cell phones are not going away any time soon. In fact, 75 percent of teens own a phone and 66 percent send and receive text messages, according to the Pew study. Since it's likely that your teens will have access to a cell phone while driving, it's important to inform them of the risks created by texting behind the wheel and set some ground rules.
Explain the Risks
Texting while driving is never safe. Period. However, teens think they can text safely by only texting while stopped at a light or holding their phone at eye level so their heads aren't down. You need to make it clear to your teens that taking their eyes off the road (or their hands off the steering wheel) while driving can be extremely dangerous.
A study by Transport Research Laboratory found that reaction time slowed by 35 percent when young drivers were texting and by only 12 percent at the legal alcohol limit. The study also found that text messaging worsened steering control by 91 percent and that texters drifted out of their lane more often and were less likely to maintain safe distances from other cars.
If you don't think your teens will understand how risky texting while driving is just by you explaining it, then show them. Take them to an empty parking lot (make sure it's empty!) and have them try to drive with distractions. Once they experience first-hand how distracting texting can be, they may be less likely to do it when there are other people or cars around.
Set Ground Rules
When your teens are learning to drive or have just received their license, it is always a good idea to establish rules and guidelines. These rules should include how many people they can have in their car while driving, the importance of wearing seatbelts, keeping their car maintained and not driving while distracted (including texting).
While many states ban texting while driving, and will issue penalties for the behavior, you should also establish consequences if your teens text. Though you won't necessarily be in the car with them to know if they are texting, hold your teens accountable if you do find out they were texting while driving. Take away driving or phone privileges until they can be responsible enough to ignore their phones while on the road.
Be a Good Example
In the Pew study, nearly 50 percent of teens said they have been in a car with a driver who texts, and many of them said the texters were their parents. If your kids see you texting while driving, and believe you to be a safe driver, then they are more likely to pick up the habit themselves.
Texting while driving is not just dangerous for teens -- it's dangerous for any driver. While you should never make it a habit to text while driving (even if it's just one time), you should especially resist doing so when your teens are in the car. Set the example for them that it is never okay to text when behind the wheel. Remind them that nothing is that important that it can't wait until they are safely parked or at their destination.
Help Them Speak Up
Even if your teens have agreed to not text while driving, there is a good chance that some of their friends won't be as responsible. Teach your teens that it's okay for them to tell their friends that they don't feel comfortable being driven by them if they are going to text.
Have them practice what they'll say if they find themselves in that situation, and let them know that it's the same as refusing to get into a car with a drunk driver. Let your teens know they always have the option of offering to drive themselves or of calling you for a ride if they don't think their friends will drive safely.
Teaching your teens these lessons now may keep them from getting into accidents, and may just save their lives.