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Wendy Berk Headshot

Lessons from the Driver's Seat: Parents Really Do Matter!

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Today I asked my teenage daughter to put her phone down and start her homework ... about 14 times before she listened! She was "face-timing" a friend -- a term I would've never known if not for the glorious education I'm receiving courtesy of my daughter. I watch with trepidation as she and her girlfriends hang out, how silly, immature and absent-minded they can be sometimes, and then I feel the pit in my stomach -- my daughter will be driving soon. Although an honor student, she can barely hold a conversation without her thoughts drifting, is constantly tripping as she walks due to inattention and cannot separate from her phone for longer than a few seconds without having a panic attack. How am I supposed to give her the keys and allow her to drive a 4,000-pound vehicle?

But as I worry for my daughter's safety, I start to wonder: What kind of driver am I? According to recent studies, parents are the biggest influence on their teens' driving behavior and serve as role models, starting when the car seat is turned forward. As we are all pressed for time, our offices have extended into our cars as we try to make the most of every minute. Multi-tasking is almost seen as a necessity to get through all that awaits us in a given day. As a traffic safety advocate, I see the devastation caused by distractions every day, but I'd be dishonest if I stated that I never partake in distracting behavior when behind the wheel.

Yesterday while on a short drive with my daughter, I had a revelation. Although I'm hoping that she'll be a safe driver when she gets behind the wheel, I realized that I wasn't setting a very good example. First, I was watching the GPS as I was driving to a location with which I was not familiar. With the cold weather before us, I am always sipping my hot tea in the car. I didn't have time to eat before I left, so brought a banana to eat as I drove. Of course, at my daughter's request, I had to keep changing the radio stations until I found a song that she liked, then we both proceeded to sing along at the top of our lungs. At a traffic light, I quickly checked my phone to see if the people we were meeting had sent me a text message, and then I applied chap stick -- again a cold-weather habit of mine! All along, I was trying to maintain a conversation with my daughter, which, if you ever listen to a teenager speak you know -- it requires all your attention because you often have to piece the words together in your mind to make sense. Luckily, we arrived safely at our destination, but what lessons did I teach my daughter? I constantly talk to her about being a safe driver, but yet my behavior often sends a different message.

So, here we are a few days before Thanksgiving, and as I reflect on those things I am grateful for, number one on my list is my precious daughter! Today, I am making a pledge and giving the best gift to her this holiday season. I will give my daughter the gift of being a good role model behind the wheel. I will drive as I expect her to drive, free of distractions. I will not look at my cell phone when driving, and I will also keep my attention solely on the road and not on the conversation within the car -- not on the radio, or navigation system, not on anything except teaching my daughter one of the most important lessons to keep her safe. I will teach her through example how to be a safe driver, and that is a lesson that can save her life.

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.