It’s time for parents to stop distracted driving

As someone who has been a parent for 22 years, I know firsthand just how hard driving kids around can be. When they are little they cry, as they get older they ask a million questions and fight with their siblings, and when they get older there’s the whole issue of the radio, not to mention the chaos of friends in the car. But a study recently released suggests that when it comes to parents and distracted driving, it’s not just an “Are we there yet?” problem.

Researchers from the University of Michigan surveyed more than 600 parents about various common driving distractions. They asked them whether, in the past month, they had talked on the phone (handheld or hands-free), done child care (fed a child or picked up a toy), done self-care (grooming, eating), gotten directions (via a navigation system or a map), fiddled with the entertainment system (changing a CD or DVD), or texting/surfing the Internet. They also asked them if they did it during less than half the trips, more than half the trips or every trip.

The results (which, sadly, probably won’t surprise most parents) were worrisome. Here’s the rough breakdown of how many said yes to each:

  • Phone calls: 75 percent (20 percent every trip)
  • Child care: 70 percent (25 percent every trip)
  • Self-care: 70 percent (10 percent every trip)
  • Directions: 50 percent (10 percent every trip)
  • Entertainment: 50 percent (5 percent every trip)
  • Texting: 15 percent (1 percent every trip)

Now, not all of this is necessarily awful. I don’t know that it’s that dangerous to munch on a cracker or listen to the nice GPS voice telling you to turn right in 30 yards while you drive. But some of it is dangerous; while  there is a general and understandable uproar about texting and driving (thank goodness the numbers in this study were lowest for that), the truth is that anything that takes our eyes or minds off the road can lead to disaster.

And that’s what the researchers found, too. Parents who used phones while driving were more than twice as likely to have had a previous motor vehicle crash. Those who did child care, self care or got directions were about twice as likely, and those who fiddled with the entertainment or texted were about one and a half times more likely.

Multitasking is an intrinsic part of parenthood. It’s hard to imagine parenthood without it–I’m certainly someone who has done some pretty extreme multitasking. But I think that there are some times, and some places, when we just have to stop ourselves from multitasking. When we are driving our kids somewhere, well, that’s one of those times.

Try pulling over to make phone calls (and certainly to text or use the Internet). Eat before you go–or stop and eat if it’s a long ride. Make sure there are plenty of toys within reach for long car rides. Know where you are going before you leave. If they don’t like the music or the movie, tough–unless you have someone with you who can change it, or until you can pull over. Try setting car rules and creating a culture of safety; it will lessen the arguments.

When we drive our children, let’s treat them like the precious cargo they are.

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thriving, the Boston Children’s Hospital blog, Vector, the Boston Children’s Hospital science and clinical innovation blog, and MD Mama at, where this article originally appeared.

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  • usvietnamvet

    I think we have simply gotten to comfortable in our cars. I used to do rescues in car accident and never talk on my phone, change the station or do other things that might take my eyes or my mind off the road. Driving is dangerous and takes complete attention. I’ve been driving for over 40 years and have never had an accident in which I was at fault. The one accident I did have was where someone ran into me while high on drugs. To say that I am a defensive driver is an understatement. But every near miss I’ve had has been because of distracted drivers. And if you have kids in the car you have to have rules. My kids knew that if I had to pull over because they were causing problems it would result in NO TV and other punishments. I don’t understand why more people don’t just pull over if they need to answer a phone or do something else. When our kids started driving one of the lessons we gave them was about defensive driving and distracted driving. It’s a shame when anyone gets hurt in a preventable accident and worse when someone dies…especially an innocent.

  • Linda Fitzgerald

    Having had a stroke three years ago, I am still unable to use my left hand to drive. Being a one-handed driver, I can no longer multi-task as I drive. I never realized before how inattentive to the road one can be. I have to wait for a red light to retrieve my sunglasses, change the radio station, and get something from my glovebox. Forget even thinking about answering my phone! Unfortunately, most people will not change their habits until they have a diaster of their own. Hopefully it won’t involve their kids.

  • Joan M. Stephens

    The newer cars’ dashboards look like jumbo jet instrument panels. Just finding the defroster or A/C is a challenge. I do think this is somewhat a generational problem. I agree with usvietnamvet that we’ve gotten too comfortable in our cars. They’ve become an extension of our home.

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