Educate New Drivers So They Never Begin To Drive Distracted

Lela Jacobson, PhD
Behavioral Scientist
Center for Injury Research and Prevention
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

In addition to encouraging and persuading current drivers to stop driving while distracted, another important window of opportunity to end distracted driving is to educate learner drivers so that they never begin to drive distracted.

Adult-supervised behind-the-wheel practice and instruction allows for the development of critical higher order skills such as scanning and attention control, which can help to prevent the initiation of distracted driving, one new driver at a time.

Executing appropriate scanning and attention to the road demands superior management of potential distractions that arise while driving. When external distractions come up, a driver must be able to dismiss, control, or eliminate them in order to maintain attention to the road. Those teen drivers who truly scan and attend to the road successfully are largely unable to simultaneously engage in distracted driving. Therefore, a crucial task of behind-the-wheel driver instruction is to teach and ingrain appropriate and continuous scanning of the road, in order to avoid creating future generations of new distracted drivers.

Some distractions are within the driver’s control, and some are not.  What is always within the driver’s control is the choice of behavior. Do I choose to use my phone while driving? Do I choose to play extremely loud music or eat while I drive? Do I choose to drive several friends even knowing they will be loud and distracting? Do I allow my mother in the passenger seat to talk on her cell phone when it’s distracting me?  Empowering and instilling “no” responses to these questions in novice drivers so that the safer driving choice is automatic must become part of the teaching-to-drive process.

Making scanning, attention control, and distraction management essential components of new driver education and behind-the-wheel practice offers real promise: a future round of new drivers could be trained such that they would never consider engaging in today’s unfortunately common unsafe driving habits.  Ending distracted driving is within our reach – through building awareness and changing behaviors of current drivers AND teaching new drivers critical skills.  Parents are the key  to this education through the supervised practice they particularly can provide during the learning-to-drive process.