While it may come as no surprise that parents who talk on cell phones, send texts or eat and drink while driving have teenagers who are more likely to do the same, what teens think their parents do behind the wheel matters more than what mom or dad say they do.
A new study by the U-M Transportation Research Institute and Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. shows a significant correlation between parent and teen driving distraction behaviors, suggesting that parents play an influential role in modeling risky behavior on the road.
“Children look to their parents for a model of what is acceptable,” says Ray Bingham, research professor and head of UMTRI’s Young Driver Behavior and Injury Prevention Group. “Parents should know that every time they get behind the wheel with their child in the car they are providing a visible example that their child is likely to follow.”
UMTRI and Toyota researchers surveyed more than 2,600 newly licensed U.S. drivers ages 16-18 and nearly 3,000 parents of drivers in this age group, including 400 pairs of teens and parents from the same households, during August and September 2012. They found that parents who more frequently engage in driving distraction behaviors have teens who engage in distracting behaviors more frequently than other young drivers.
A key finding, however, is that what teens think their parents do while driving has a greater impact on teen behavior than what parents actually report they do. For example, if a teen’s parent reports dealing with passenger issues while driving, the teen is twice as likely to do the same. But if a teen thinks his or her parent deals with passenger issues while driving, the teen is five times more likely to do so themselves.
Likewise, if a teen’s parent reports looking for something in the vehicle while driving or reports eating or drinking while driving, the teen is twice as likely to do the same, but are four times more likely if he or she thinks his or her parent looks for something in the vehicle while driving and three times more likely to eat or drink behind the wheel.
Bingham and colleagues say that teens think their parents engage in distracted driving more often than may be the case. A third of teens believe their parents use an iPod or other electronic device for music while driving, while only 10 percent of parents report that they do. Seventy-one percent of teens believe their parents read or write down directions while driving, while 55 percent of parents say they actually do. Eighty-five percent of teens believe their parents deal with passenger issues while driving, while 70 percent of parents say they do.
“Overall, teens think that their parents engage in distracted driving behaviors more often than may be the case, which may allow them to justify certain high-risk behaviors behind the wheel,” Bingham says.
Another major finding from the study is that parents may underestimate how much their teens text while driving. More than a quarter of teens (26 percent) read or send a text message at least once every time they drive, although only 1 percent of their parents said their teen did this.
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