Teach Children About Distracted Driving Long Before They’re Behind the Wheel

As parents, we will do everything we can to keep our kids safe. But what if our own behavior is putting our children at a grave risk right now and teaching them dangerous habits for the future – and we do not even realize we’re doing it?

When it comes to distracted driving, “do as I say, not as I do” parenting culture is ineffective. Children learn by watching their parents, adopting both their good and bad behavior. But driving while distracted is more than just a bad habit. “Moms and dads who drive distracted with their kids in the car are exposing them to the risk of a crash, but at the same time, they are teaching them that it’s OK to drive distracted, because moms and dads do it,” said Joel Feldman, who founded EndDD.org with his wife, Dianne Anderson, after their daughter Casey was killed by a distracted driver.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death among ages five to 21, which is why choosing driving habits could actually mean the difference between life and death. Studies show that teens who grow up in a household where their parents drive distracted are two to four times more likely to also drive distracted. And by our count, many parents practice these bad habits. More than 90 percent of teens who have seen an EndDD.org presentation say that their parents will frequently drive distracted with them in the car.

If parents are not being good role models on their own, then their children need to be able to recognize distracted driving and know what to do when their drivers are distracted. We believe these lessons can begin as early as elementary school. In partnership with Safe Roads Alliance, we have developed a curriculum for elementary schools to teach and empower young children to speak up when their drivers are distracted.

Elementary School Curriculum: Child-to-Parent Intervention Against Unsafe Driving

We joined forces with Safe Roads Alliance to introduce distracted driving awareness to elementary school students in a simple but meaningful way. Founded in 2006, the Massachusetts-based nonprofit focuses on education and awareness to motivate safer driving. Through legislative advocacy, the organization aims to also strengthen laws that will reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities on the road. Distracted driving is an issue close to the heart of Emily Stein, President of Safe Roads Alliance. In 2011, Emily’s father, Howard Stein, was securing a load on his truck on a highway in Massachusetts when a 17-year-old driver struck and killed him. The driver was programming her GPS at the time of the crash.

Joel met Emily in 2012 and have since mentored one another as safety advocates. As a parent, Emily noticed that her children began to speak up in the car when they saw unsafe driving behavior from other motorists. “They are the most precious cargo in the vehicle,” Emily said. “Knowing that distracted drivers are all around you and that your children notice and watch it happen is really scary.”

Our new elementary school curriculum helps children become part of the solution, long before they are drivers themselves. Kids Speaking Up for Road Safety offers 45- to 60-minute lessons for grades two to three, four to five, and sixth grade. The plans were developed in collaboration with psychologists, SEL experts, content developers, videographers, and animators experienced in creating educational programs. Lesson content and activities draw on the core SEL competencies framework developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

A Familiar, Safe Learning Environment for Kids

The dangers of distracted driving can be a heavy topic for young children to understand, which made developing an elementary-age curriculum challenging. Danielle Gibson, a first-grade teacher and Joel’s neighbor, offered invaluable insight. We also teamed with ePublishingPartners, a digital educational content developer, to ensure children can understand and emotionally handle the lesson plans.

Through this and other collaboration, we found that the goal was to create a familiar and safe environment for children to learn the concepts. The idea of Sam the Meerkat was born. Sam teaches children to identify distractions and the problems with being distracted. Lance Deschenes, Senior Project Director at ePublishingPartners, explained that the team approached the lessons using language children will understand, while thoughtfully and carefully introducing new vocabulary. “We wanted the lessons to be fun and engaging, so we included three videos and lots of activities,” Lance said.

Sam the Meerkat guides children through a lesson with a three-part strategy:

  1. See something,
  2. Address the problem using an “I” statement, and
  3. Make an action plan together.

Sam presents an effective strategy for “bystander intervention,” empowering children to speak up respectfully and effectively. Through Sam, children learn that they can be the people who change the status quo about driving behavior. Then, when it is their turn to get behind the wheel many years from now, it is our hope that they will remember these lessons and make safe driving choices for themselves.

But for now, we believe the elementary school lessons will get parents to think twice about driving distracted. “Many adults might not always follow the law, but they’ll listen to their kids,” Emily said. “Getting kids to speak up will change their parents’ driving habits. Not only that, but we also have the elementary school plans in the hands of teachers, so I’m excited to see how the presentations are going to resonate with the teachers and possibly help them to change their own behaviors. The program’s benefits are multi-faceted, and if we can save lives, we’ve succeeded.”

Our Kids Speaking Up for Road Safety elementary school programs for grades two to three, four to five, and sixth grade are available for teachers across the country.