Distracted driving Research: Adults are the Problem, Teens are the Solution

Despite the amplitude of warnings and cautionary billboards across U.S. highways that urge drivers to put down the phone while behind the wheel, a 2017 study found that 95.2% of surveyors who were young drivers participated in distracted driving behaviors. Today, distracted driving continues to pose a major threat to young people, as 16-19 year-olds are 3 times more likely to end up in a fatal car crash compared to those 20 years-old and up. 

New Distracted Driving Research Study

Joel Feldman, founder of EndDD.org and the Casey Feldman Foundation, is partnering  with Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Harvard Medical School researchers to conduct one of the most comprehensive teen distracted driving research projects. 

“Many speak of raising awareness about the dangers of distracted driving, but raising awareness has not worked. People know distracted driving is dangerous, but they choose to drive distracted. And kids really have it stacked against them with their driving inexperience, addiction to the cellphone, and seeing mom and dad drive distracted,” Feldman said, “The goal of this distracted driving research project is to reduce distracted driving crashes, not raise awareness.” 

Studies have assessed driving behavior among youths and found that 70% participated in distracted driving. This overwhelming statistic proves that more stringent efforts need to be explored in order to prevent distracted driving behavior among teenagers. According to Feldman, adults have developed distracted driving campaigns for years, but the statistics show that they’ve been unsuccessful.

“We need to do something different, something that makes kids safer,” Feldman said, “to produce tangible results that can be used across the nation.” 

For Feldman, this distracted driving research project means more to him than just ending distracted driving among teenagers. In 2009, Feldman’s 21-year-old daughter, Casey, was fatally struck by a distracted driver in a crosswalk where Casey was walking to her waitressing job in Ocean City, NJ. 

“Every day, I live with the absence of my daughter, a promising young woman. And every week I’m at schools with teens and I look at their faces, and in all those faces I see promising futures. Casey had what they had. A future, a life. We all need to do more to keep those kids safe,” Feldman said, “I can’t bring Casey back, but I sure can work to keep kids safe.” 

The research proposal states that the objective is to “develop a high school campaign, comprised of a slogan and accompanying video messages, optimized to achieve the primary aim, which is to reduce distracted driving among high school students.” The best part? Campaign videos will be produced by some of the nation’s most talented high school filmmakers, making the entire creative effort by teens and most importantly, for teens. 

“We want to work with teens at every step of this project, up to and including teens actually filming and making videos look the way other teens want them to look,” Feldman said. 

Over the next 12-15 months, Dr. Rebecca Robbins, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and the principal investigator on the distracted driving research project, will utilize qualitative methods from in-depth interviews and surveys of high school students across the country to understand the predisposing and enabling factors that influence distracted driving behaviors among new drivers. Selected students will then create public service announcement (PSA) videos incorporating slogans and messages to end distracted driving. These will then be evaluated through scientific research methods using a control group school to measure their success. 

“What is really exciting to me is helping to address this problem early on in the trajectory of a young person’s driving career, and the opportunity to work with young people and create something that’s really fun, and that gives them a lot of pride. I’m looking forward to this entire project,” Robbins said. 

According to Feldman and Robbins, incorporating teens in the creative process of this distracted driving research project is essential. Feldman frequently travels across the country, giving presentations at schools and organizations about the dangers of distracted driving. Around 70-80% of students at his presentations admit their parents drive distracted.

The distracted driving research project is intended to address more than texting while driving, as distracted driving behavior can include taking phone calls, changing music and fiddling with a stereo or navigation system, eating or drinking, and even fatigue. Dr. Robbins, an expert in health and science communication, developed past studies addressing distracted driving behavior in relation to lack of sleep. Dr. Robbins found that lack of sleep, especially among young people, will increase chances of distracted driving behavior. The proposed research project therefore includes methods to measure sleep patterns and teens’ driving behavior, making the predisposed factors that influence distracted driving, all that more multifaceted.

“When you’re sleep deprived, you’re more likely to engage in risky behavior. Particularly among young people, sleep is really challenging. The risk of distracted driving is even higher,” Robbins said. 

What many may not know as well, is that distracted driving is comparatively just as dangerous as drunk driving. Distracted driving results in slower reaction times, more lane departures, and has shown to result in an alertness level similar to a blood alcohol content of either .07 or .10. However, Feldman explained that distracted driving still does not receive enough national recognition as a major threat to safety. 

“Drunk driving is not socially acceptable. We frown on people who drive drunk. We’re not there yet with distracted driving, but I’m optimistic that if we give teens the tools, then they can figure this out and will change the culture so that distracted driving will become socially unacceptable as well,” Feldman said. 

In 2020 alone, 3,142 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents involving distracted drivers, and in 2019, the CDC found that among all fatal car crashes involving distracted drivers, a higher percentage of them were new drivers ages 15-20-years-old. So while the data shows young people are disproportionately at risk to drive distracted, campaigns over the years have failed to change the culture surrounding distracted driving. 

“Adults will not make distracted driving socially unacceptable. Our children can do that, but we need to give them the tools to do so and role model distraction-free driving for our children every time we drive,” Feldman said. 

By Savannah Mather