father and teen son in a carPhone calls. Text messages. Talking to friends in the backseat. Eating lunch on the go. Operating a GPS.

There are about as many things that could potentially distract drivers as there are vehicles on the road, and those distractions can be dangerous – even deadly. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), distracted driving in 2015 accounted for 10 percent of fatal crashes, 15 percent of crashes causing injuries, and 14 percent of all crashes to which police responded.

For teen drivers, the numbers are even higher. The NHTSA reported that of the 2,521 teens killed in automobile crashes in 2015, 11 percent of those – or about 277 teens – were killed in crashes involving distracted driving.

Cher Carney, a research specialist at the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa, and Julia Shelton, MD, MPH, a pediatric surgeon at University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, discuss distracted driving in teens and how to help keep your teen safe on the road.

What is ‘distracted driving’?

Carney: Driver distraction occurs when drivers divert their attention from driving to another activity. A common example of this is texting, but distracted driving is anything that takes your eyes off the road, hands off the wheel, or mind off driving.

How big of a problem is distracted driving among teenagers?

Carney: University of Iowa researchers conducted a video analysis of nearly 1,700 teen crashes and found that distraction was a factor in nearly 60 percent. For road departure crashes and rear-end crashes, distraction was even more likely to be a factor, present in 89 percent and 76 percent of crashes, respectively.

What distracts teens the most?

Carney: While much of the blame regarding driver distraction is often on cell phones, UI researchers found that the most common teen driver distraction before a crash was talking with passengers, present in 15 percent of crashes analyzed. The second most common was cell phone use, present in 12 percent of crashes. 

Several studies have shown that diverting attention from the task of driving significantly increases the odds of being involved in a collision and that teens are much more likely to both engage in distracting activities and to look away from the road for longer periods of time than adult drivers.

What can parents do to reduce distractions for their teen drivers? 

Shelton: Parents should communicate their expectations to their children (both teen drivers and younger children) that phones should not be used while they are driving, or even sitting at a stoplight. Apps that can help discourage phone use while driving will send auto replies such as “the person you are trying to reach cannot talk or text right now.” 

One of the best things parents can do is model their own behavior. Adults should not talk, text, or otherwise use their phones while they are driving. Parents should advise their children not to accept rides from other drivers who use their phones while driving.

Carney: Parents should also limit peer passengers for their newly licensed teens. This is a major crash risk. Two or more peer passengers more than triples the risk of a fatal crash with a teen behind the wheel. The aim is engaged driving, where teen drivers are continuously attentive and focused. In Iowa, there are graduated driver's license (GDL) laws for teenagers.

What kinds of injuries do you see as a result of distracted teen drivers?

Shelton: We see an incredible spectrum of injuries, from minor bumps and bruises to fatal injuries. Parents should know that trauma remains the number one cause of death for children, and motor vehicle crashes are number one in terms of things that cause those traumas.

What advice would you give teens about to get their driver’s license?

Shelton: Pay attention. You must know what is going on around you in order to react safely. There is a lot of information confirming that distracted driving is unsafe. Those distractions can include alcohol, drugs, fatigue, cell phone use, and being distracted by passengers in the vehicle. None of these things are more important than a person’s life.

As always, in the case of an injury or other emergency, call 911.