THE BLOG
11/25/2013 10:23 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Driving Young, Driving Distracted

It's natural for parents to worry about their kids. They worry a lot about different things depending on the age of their child. As kids reach adolescence, parents worry about protecting them from things like disease and gun violence, but statistics show that those risks are far lower than the risk of being injured or killed in a car crash.

The fact is that driving in a car is the single-most dangerous activity a young person can do, whether they're behind the wheel or in the passenger seat. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens ages 14-19. That these deaths are both premature and preventable makes them all the more tragic.

Teen crashes are the result of a complex web of factors including overconfidence, inexperience, poor judgment and high susceptibility to distraction and peer pressure. Even teens' brains work against them -- during this developmental phase the part of the brain that triggers reward-seeking behavior has the upper hand over the slower-developing areas involved in impulse control and self-regulation.

Distraction has become a focus of crash research, in part because technologies like smart phones have exponentially increased the possibilities for distraction. The scourge of driver distraction and inattention has been around, however, since the invention of the automobile. Passengers, objects inside and outside the vehicle, even "just spacing" out with the boredom of driving can be hazardous for all drivers -- but are especially so for teens.

Driving takes a lot of effort when we first learn how. Even the radio may have to be turned off so that we can concentrate on staying on the road. As we gain confidence, we begin to add layers of activity -- music, passengers, looking at other cars, drivers and scenery. Soon we become bored and look for other activities to help alleviate the monotony of driving. Each layer we add is an experiment of sorts -- a study of how things work. Most of the time we get away with distraction, which encourages us to push it a little more, and a little more. Sure we may drift out of our lane on occasion, or have to slam on the brakes when we don't see the car stopped ahead. But the fact is the roadway environment is largely a forgiving one.

Cell phones currently get most of the press when the subject of distracted driving comes up. Today's teens have never lived in a world without cell phones -- and many are addicted to them. Teens tend to use their phones to interact by texting, Snapchatting or social media like Instagram and Twitter. Interacting with this way is much more attentionally demanding than the plain phone conversations of their parents' generation.

Contrary to expectations, however, our research and that of others is beginning to show that cell phones are not necessarily the most dangerous distraction for teens. The most lethal form of distraction may be teen passengers. One study estimated that 16-17 year olds increase risk of a fatal crash by 44% with one teen passenger, double it with two and quadruple it with three. The more teen passengers, the more dizzying the exponents become.

When teen drivers and passengers climb aboard, rational decision-making appears to go out the window -- they become ruled by emotion. Male teens with teen passengers tend to speed and drive more aggressively than they would when alone while females are just more distracted by the other passengers themselves. Add in other teens' texting and talking and the vehicle can quickly become a place for social activity where the driver may feel compelled to keep up with the online conversations. Suddenly, driving the car somehow becomes the distraction.

Research at the University of Iowa (UI) over the last 10 years has provided a unique window into teen driver behavior and the risks of distraction. Using a research approach called "naturalistic driving," in which small, event-triggered video recorders are placed in teens cars, we have been able to get a first-hand view of driver behavior beamed direct to our lab. This has helped us understand the complexity and variety of driver distractions beyond the cell phone.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a 12-second video of a young driver taking his or her eyes off the road for several seconds is beyond words. In an effort to reduce risky behavior, the UI studies shared videos of the most hazardous behaviors with teens and their parents in a weekly report card. The result was a reduction of as much as 70% of the most dangerous behaviors in the riskiest drivers.

We also found that such feedback gave parents and teens the opportunity to talk about safe driving. These conversations are just as important as discussions about drugs, alcohol and sex. Research suggests that teens listen more than parents think, and that such open communication has a significant and lasting impact on safety. From our research and others, this type of feedback has been shown to be one of the most effective technologies for reducing driver risk.

Other approaches are also helping to address these pressing safety concerns. Studies at the UI and other universities have assisted legislators in enacting enhanced graduated driver's license (GDL) programs. GDLs protect teens from the riskiest driving situations by limiting nighttime driving, the number of teen passengers, and banning use of electronic devices during the first six months of independent driving -- the period when young drivers are most likely to crash. Many argue that GDLs deserve part of the credit for the current downward trend of fatal teen crashes.

Finally, technological solutions are in the works to help all drivers stay safe in our plugged in, constant contact world. Systems and apps available now can suppress calls and texts when they sense the vehicle is in motion, perhaps sending an autoreply that says, "I'm driving now, but will get back to you as soon as I can." Phone makers and service providers should soon make these a standard part of their design and infrastructure.

Other systems in preproduction use eye-tracking technology to sense when a driver is distracted and allow the vehicle to intervene -- by issuing an alert, or even braking to avoid a crash.

When it comes down to it, distraction is distraction. It really does not matter what the source is. A colleague once pointed out that we don't differentiate between types of alcohol when we are caught for drunk driving. It makes no difference whether you crashed because you drank too much whisky or too much beer. It's time for us to look at distraction the same way, and to educate our youngest drivers that an ill-timed glance -- no matter the source -- can be the difference between life and death.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

And if you'd like to share your story or observation, please send us your 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.