September 19, 2014 / 7:16 PM / 3 years ago

Docs urge action to stop young drivers’ texting

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Texting while driving could be contributing to thousands of car crashes, especially among teens, and the American College of Preventive Medicine (ACPM) wants policy makers, doctors and parents to do something about it.

Texting by novice drivers raises the chances of an accident almost four-fold, the authors of a new position statement point out. But they say new laws, combined with public education, could help eradicate this unnecessary risk on the roadways.

“I was surprised that statistically the risks, given the little hard data we have, are comparable or worse than those of individuals who are driving under the influence,” said Dr. Kevin Sherin, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County and lead author of the recommendations published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The new recommendations focus on teens because they text or Internet browse nearly twice as much as adults. A recent study found that drivers with less than two years’ experience are eight times more likely to crash if they use a cell phone, and seven times more likely if they reach for a cell phone (see Reuters Health story of January 1, 2014, here: bit.ly/19F1LID).

Their risk of crashing increases 3.9 times by sending or receiving texts or using the Internet while driving, the same study found. Of drivers under 20 years old, 11 percent involved in fatal vehicle crashes said they were distracted and nearly one in five said those distractions came from using a cell phone.

Distractions played a role in 17 percent of motor vehicle crashes in 2011 and 3,331 deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Cell phones were involved in 12 percent of the deaths.

“I have personally observed my teens sending texts and admitting they were driving . . . despite my safety warnings and my own public health, preventive medicine and public safety awareness and special knowledge,” said Sherin, whose children are now in their 20s.

“It certainly did make me interested in effecting (change in) state and national policy,” said Sherin, who also teaches at the Florida State University College of Medicine and the University of Central Florida College of Medicine in Tallahassee.

The recommendations include state bans against texting and driving, public relations campaigns about the dangers, beefed up penalties for violations and educating future drivers when they apply for licenses. Primary care doctors and parents should also work at explaining the dangers of texting while driving to adolescents, starting at age 15, the authors say.

They added that more research is needed on the role of texting in distracted driving, and on effective educational tools, ad campaigns and how best to counsel patients against it.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Administration, 14 states have banned handheld cell phone use for all drivers, 38 states and Washington, D.C. prohibit cell phone use for new drivers, 20 states and D.C. prohibit cell phone use for school bus drivers and 44 states have banned texting while driving. Some states use primary enforcement laws for the infractions and others secondary enforcement laws.

“I personally think the penalties for texting and driving should be as harsh as those for driving under the influence,” Sherin said. “The risks are similar.

Television ads in after-school time slots (like the ads against drugs and alcohol) could highlight the dangers of texting while driving for teens, the ACPM committee said.

Dr. Linda Hill, clinical professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, told Reuters Health she agrees with the recommendations but thinks they should have also focused on the dangers of hands-free and hand-held cell phone use while driving. Hill was not involved in the recommendations, though she is a member of the ACPM.

Employers also need to be involved since they often expect employees to answer their phones, even while driving, said Hill, who studies distracted driving and has launched several driver safety programs, including one for businesses.

In a 2011-2012 survey of 5,000 college students in California, Hill found 90 percent were texting and 90 percent talking on the phone while driving. The survey also found that 50 percent sent texts while driving on the freeway.

“We thought that was pretty scary,” Hill said. “What shocked us was that 46 percent of the kids thought they were capable of distracted driving but thought only 8 percent of other drivers were.”

That unwarranted self-confidence in multitaskers is common, according to Zhen Joyce Wang at the Center for Cognitive and Brain Sciences, The Ohio State University. She told Reuters Health that texting while driving can be particularly dangerous.

“It is because the capacities demanded by the tasks are more than what a person can typically afford,” said Wang, who has published several studies on distracted driving. “We found both behavioral and eye movement (indicating visual attention) evidence that suggest texting and driving could be more dangerous than making phone calls while driving,” Wang said in an email.

SOURCE: bit.ly/1uHC58a American Journal of Preventive Medicine, published online Sept. 10, 2014.

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