Most parents text while driving, but millennials may be more dangerous

More than half of U.S. parents believe it’s unsafe to text while driving, but most of them do it anyway, a new survey suggests.

“I think many people believe that texting and driving is unsafe, but also have gotten away with reading and/or writing texts at some point, reinforcing a false sense of safety,” said senior study author Dr. Regan Bergmark of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Indeed, 52 percent of millennial parents (22 to 37 years old) and 58 percent of older parents said they thought it was “never” safe to text and drive, researchers report in JAMA Pediatrics.

But almost two-thirds of parents have read texts while driving, and more than half of them have also written texts, the survey of 435 parents in 45 U.S. states found.

Millennials - a generation that includes many digital natives who grew up with smartphones - were more apt to have a variety of other dangerous habits while driving, like using email, checking email, and speeding, than older parents, the survey also found.

“The problem with smartphones is that they have become an unavoidable part of daily life for most people,” Bergmark said by email.

“Many people are expected to be reachable by phone or email immediately, to be reachable for their children or work,” Bergmark added. “Being a responsible adult therefore often means always being reachable - yet we also know that while driving, being reachable carries with it the risk of a crash.”

About 16 percent of millennial parents and 10 percent of older parents in the survey said they had been in at least one crash in the previous year.

Compared to people who didn’t experience a crash, those who did were much more likely to have a variety of unsafe driving habits like speeding, texting, emailing, and doing other things on their phones, the survey found.

Roughly three in four parents said they didn’t recall their child’s pediatrician speaking to them about distracted driving or the dangers of texting while driving.

And only about one in four millennials and about one in six older parents had used apps or cell phone features aimed at cutting back on distracted driving.

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how texting or other activities might cause crashes or if any specific interventions might help reduce this risk.

“In general, it is never safe to use a smartphone while driving,” said Despina Stavrinos, director of the Translational Research for Injury Prevention (TRIP) Laboratory at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“There are a number of apps that can help to limit distracted driving, by disabling cell phone features when the vehicle is in motion,” Stavrinos, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “The simplest thing to do is to put the phone out of sight and out of reach to reduce the temptation to drive distracted.”

Smartphones, however, are hardly the only dangerous source of distraction, Stavrinos said.

“Distractions are tasks that require a driver to take his/her eyes off the road, hands off the steering wheel, and mind off of the road,” Stavrinos added. “When tasks require all three of those domains (visual, manual, cognitive) they are considered to be a triple threat to safety.”

SOURCE: JAMA Pediatrics, online May 13, 2019.