11/13/2012 12:07 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Parents Are Not the Best Role Models for Teen Drivers

Most of the emails I receive are from parents, but recently, I received one from a teen that caught my eye. It reminded me that our kids are always watching us, and sometimes, what they observe has life or death implications.

One teen wrote:

My parents make all these rules about how I'm not supposed to use my the phone when I drive but they do it all the time! I don't think they should threaten to ground me for sending one text message when I'm at a stoplight if they talk on the phone non-stop while they drive. If they send texts or check their email at a red light, why can't I?

There's a cute car commercial that shows a father handing over the car keys to his 6-year old as she sits behind the wheel, admonishing her to keep her eyes on the road and to under no circumstances use her cell phone. You can feel his anguish and turmoil as he entrusts his precious child with the means to both step further into her independence and potentially risk her life as she gets behind the wheel. In truth, the daughter he's talking to is a teenager, but in his heart, she's his baby, and he's clearly pained to be entrusting her with such a grown-up responsibility.

Imagine that same parent sitting in the car with that little girl -- either as a 6-year-old or 16-year-old -- as he offers her pointers about how staying safe on the road. "Be sure to use your turn signal plenty of time before you get to the corner." "Never go through an intersection when the light is already yellow." "Try not to take your eyes off the road for more than five seconds if your friend calls and you feel the need to answer it."

What? Would any parent in their right mind teach a new driver that it's OK to divert her attention from the road for five seconds? Of course not! But when we engage in that behavior -- chatting on our phone as we sail down the road or sending a "quick text" as we wait at a stop light -- we are teaching our drivers-in-training that it's okay to do the same. Remember: Our kids learn most by what we do, not what we say.

In a survey by Liberty Mutual Insurance and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), ninety-one percent of teens reported their parents frequently talked on a cell phone and fifty-nine percent said they sometimes sent text messages while driving.

These same teens said their parents were their primary driving influence. They also admitted to repeating their parents' poor driving habits.

Dave Melton, a driving safety expert with Liberty Mutual Insurance and managing director of global safety, offers this word of warning:

Your kids are always observing the decisions you make behind the wheel, and in fact have likely been doing so since they were big enough to see over the dashboard. You may think you only occasionally read a text at a stoplight or take the odd thirty-second phone call, but kids are seeing that in a different way. Answering your phone once while driving, even if only for a few seconds, legitimizes the action for your children and they will, in turn, see that as acceptable behavior.

It's easy to justify that quick call or text, convincing ourselves that we have plenty of driving experience under our belt. "It is just as hard for adults as it for teenagers to resist chatting with friends and sending off that quick text even in the midst of heavy traffic," Lee Rainie, director of Pew's Internet & American Life Project, said in a statement. But aside from the fact that texting while driving is the same as driving blind for five seconds at a time, the message our kids get is that if we can read or write a quick text message, they can too.

According to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis Study, texting causes 330,000 injuries per year and the National Safety Council found it contributes to 1,600,000 accidents per year. These statistics may be sobering, but they haven't been compelling enough to get millions of us to stop using our phones while we drive.

Perhaps this is: Eleven teenagers die every day as a result of texting while driving, according to the Institute for Highway Safety Fatality Facts.

If most parents knew that there was something they could do to help keep their child from becoming one of those statistics, they would.

Here it is:

The next time you hear that Bing! when you're behind the wheel, think about the behavior you're modeling for your kids when you either pick up the phone or you ignore it.

Ignore it. Leave that phone ringing to itself without feeling the need to do something about it until you arrive safely at your destination. Consider the lifesaving message you're giving your youngsters and make a choice that may save their lives, or the lives of others on the road when they're behind the wheel.

Live like your kids are watching. Because they are.