New study suggests that persuading teens to avoid distracted driving might start by asking them to monitor their parents’ driving behavior
Every day, tens of thousands of students sit through hundreds of public awareness assemblies in classrooms and auditoriums at high schools across the United States. Most of the messages are forgotten within a few days. Joel Feldman is determined to make sure his messages are not among them.
For nearly three years, Feldman’s organization, End Distracting Driving (EndDD.org), has visited high schools in 41 states, delivering presentations to more than 200,000 teens about the dangers of distracted driving. More than 1,000 distracted driving speakers have volunteered to deliver the presentation as part of the Student Awareness Initiative (SAI), which not only cautions teens about their own distracted driving but also encourages them to actively counsel their parents and friends about the dangers of taking one’s focus off the road.
Mindful of how quickly school assemblies can fade from teens’ minds, Feldman was not content for the EndDD speakers to show up, deliver a presentation, distribute a few dozen branded wristbands, and call it a day. He wanted to know if the EndDD.org message was getting through to the kids.
Enter the Research Institute at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
At Feldman’s request, researchers Lela Jacobsohn and Flaura Winston used the lessons learned from CHOP’s successful teen injury prevention program to develop an enhanced distracted driving presentation. The revised approach drew upon established methods of health communication, theories in behavioral science and behavioral change, and teen-targeted persuasion principles.
The researchers then sought to measure the effectiveness of the revised presentation by surveying the reactions and perceptions of thousands of students who attended. The survey measured students’ attitudes towards distracted driving in themselves, their parents and their peers before and several weeks after the presentation. The verdict: Some of the message is getting through, but much more work must be done to adequately educate teens on the dangers of distracted driving.
The study found that six weeks after attending the presentation, a statistically significant number of driving-aged teens had broached the topic of distracted driving with a parent who used his or her cell phone behind the wheel. Other teens indicated that they intended to talk to their parents about the behavior. Less encouragingly, however, the results indicated no significant change in the teens’ own driving behavior, their willingness to counsel friends on distracted driving risks, or in their intentions to modify their own behavior in any of these areas.
“It would be easy to focus entirely on the phrase ‘no significant change’ in the report and get discouraged, but that was the very point of this exercise,” said Feldman. “We commissioned a rigorous scientific analysis of our efforts not to get a glowing report and congratulate ourselves but,to evaluate and continue to improve this presentation. We’re trying to reach these kids, and that means we need to find out what works, and what doesn’t. If something in our educational program doesn’t work, we need to figure out why and come up with a different approach.”
Feldman was encouraged by the results that showed some teens becoming advocates against distracted driving with their parents, who Feldman said often set a poor example.
“Many people point to texting and say ‘teens are dangerous behind the wheel,’” Feldman said. “And frankly, that’s what teens expect. They come into an assembly and expect to hear some grown-up lecture them about a risk they’re ignorantly inflicting upon themselves. But when it comes to distracted driving, it’s not just about teens, and it’s not just about texting. It’s about eating and drinking, fiddling with the radio dials, using your GPS, reaching for objects, or personal grooming, among the myriad of distractions that can divert a driver’s attention away from the primary task of driving. Teens see their parents doing these things behind the wheel, and it makes an impression. We need to acknowledge that, and counteract it, when we can.”
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that in 2012, distracted drivers were involved in crashes that killed more than 3,000 people and injured more than 420,000 others. According to the National Safety Council, a driver who was either talking or texting on a cell phone was a factor in nearly a quarter of all motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2008, while a 2006 study concluded that using a cell phone at the wheel impairs a driver’s ability as much as a .08 blood alcohol concentration.
“This is everyone’s safety issue,” Feldman said. “EndDD.org sees teen drivers as a big part of the solution, and not just part of the problem.”
Feldman started EndDD after the death of his daughter, Casey Feldman, 21, of Springfield, Pa. Casey, a senior at Fordham University, died July 17, 2009 after being hit by a distracted driver as she walked to work at her summer job as a waitress in Ocean City, N.J.