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Steven Sorenson

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For Parents, When It Comes to Our Teens, This Little Thing Is a Lot Bigger Than We Think

Posted: 12/02/2013 2:00 pm

Children imitate parents from the day they are born. It begins with simple facial movements, and before you know it, your little guy or girl is talking, walking and acting just like you.

If you have kids -- and I have six of them -- you try to get the big things right. You do your best to treat people with respect, help others when you can, avoid abusing alcohol or drugs, and you hope your children will follow suit.

You focus on the big things because no parent today has the time or the energy to get all the little things right. I try not to lose my cool in front of my kids, but when my favorite sports team isn't on the winning side, I can easily become one of "those fans," yelling at the TV and making a fool of myself. I tell them to eat healthy, but sometimes I like to eat cheeseburgers. So it goes.

But there's one thing that some parents think is a little thing that is in fact a very, very big thing.

Distracted driving.

We know we shouldn't text or talk on the phone behind the wheel. But we still do it by the millions because bad things usually don't happen.

When your spouse sends a text asking what you need at the grocery store and you seamlessly look away from the road for a moment to type "milk," it seems like a victimless crime.

And it is, until that one time you react a second too late and lives change forever.

The fact is that just reaching for a phone while driving increases your risk of a crash by nine times.

In the five seconds it takes you to type out "milk" at 55 mph, you are essentially driving blind for the length of a football field.

But deadly driving distractions aren't caused only by cellphones. Eating, adjusting your music selections or volume and even talking to others in the car take you away from the critical task of getting to your destination safely. When you drive distracted, you're putting lives at risk, and you're sending an unmistakable message to your child that driving and multitasking are compatible.

They are not, no matter how good of drivers we think we are.

We may tell our kids not to text and drive, but if we're doing it, they're more likely to text and drive. After all, they've been imitating us since they were babies. And that's a huge problem because teen drivers are not usually very good drivers.

Teen drivers are inexperienced, slower to react to unfamiliar situations and much more likely to get in a serious crash than other drivers. This is hardly news to parents of driving-age children, and I myself have three children at this age. But many people don't fully appreciate how lethal that car in your driveway can be.

Car crashes are the number one killer of American teens -- a fact that was unknown to 40 percent of parents in a recent Allstate Foundation survey.

So what's to be done? Many of the suggestions in this Huffington Post series certainly merit attention, including tougher distracted driving laws, stepped-up enforcement and greater education. At Allstate, we have organized a national campaign called X the TXT that has compelled two million teens and parents to pledge not to text and drive. These pledges are on display at our 25-city Reality Rides tour, which features a driving simulator demonstrating the specific dangers of distracted driving.

But as essential as these public and private sector efforts are, parents are still the number one source of information and emulation for teenagers learning how to drive.

We can clearly do better. We have to do better.

The Allstate Foundation surveyed parents of teen drivers and found that more than half said they wish they spent more time driving with their teenager prior to them getting their license. Perhaps surprisingly, teens felt the same way, with 55 percent saying they wish their parents had spent more time teaching them to drive, especially in dangerous conditions.

When it comes to educating teens about driving, all the usual dos and don'ts are still important. And, they bear repeating as often as necessary. Don't text and drive. Don't drink and drive. Do wear your seat belt. Do ask for permission before driving somewhere. Limit the number of passengers in the car with you.

But, as parents educating teen drivers, we need to go beyond the typical prohibitions and permissions. By how we drive and what we say, we need to make it clear that driving is a serious responsibility and a privilege that demands our undivided attention.

With all the emerging challenges parents face these days -- from policing social media to finding a way to pay for college -- the last thing many of us want to hear is that there is one more thing we have to do to qualify as a good or responsible parent. But, that's what being a parent is about.

With more parents stepping up and taking distracted driving seriously, we can help our children be safer on the roads and drive more responsibly. That's behavior worth imitating.

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.

 
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