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Teens say distracted driving messages need to be catchier, more frequent and blunt

By D’arin Floyd-Baldwin, Rosie Hill, D’avora Williams and Grace Wang

Youthcast Media Group®

Neha Pradhan didn’t even think about the risks when she got in her car and pulled out her cellphone to take pictures of fall leaves while she drove.  She took her eyes off the road to get the perfect picture. When she looked back, she was speeding into the back of another car: “I slammed the brakes so hard I snapped forward,” said the 17-year-old Chicagoan. 

Neha Pradhan (courtesy of Pradhan).

She didn’t crash, but she realizes now that the momentary distraction could have cost her life.

Neha is not the only teen driver to put herself at risk this way. Teens are the age group with the largest percent of distracted drivers in the US, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Distracted driving caused over 3,500 deaths and 360,000 injuries in 2021, and about 6% of those killed were teen drivers. Yet like Neha, most teen drivers don’t think about the possible dangers or consequences of being distracted when they get behind the wheel—until it happens to them.

“When it happened to me, I turned off my music. I put my hands back on the wheel, and I stopped doing anything because I was so shaken up by the experience,” she said.

In a survey of teen drivers around the country conducted by student-journalists with Youthcast Media Group® (YMG), nearly 60% of respondents said they had experienced distracted driving as a driver or passenger, yet only 38% said that they saw it as a real danger to them or their friends, a finding that’s backed up by previous research on teen drivers.

Experts say that this reflects both that teens are more likely to do risky things as drivers or passengers, and that they generally perceive risks of many behaviors as lower than adults do. It likely also speaks to the ineffectiveness of current education and messaging about distracted driving. While 47 out of the 52 teens surveyed had seen videos or signs about distracted driving, the majority of them said the PSAs, social media posts and ads andmany parts of the government’s  $5 million distracted driving campaign, were ineffective. 

Underestimating risk 

Even with seeing distracted driving awareness videos and posts on social media, many teens think that distracted driving crashes will never happen to them. According to the American Automobile Association, 32% of around 2,000 teen drivers surveyed don’t think anything bad will happen if they use their phones while driving, contrary to what the media messages tell them. 

Rick Birt, Highway Safety officer for Washington D.C. and former CEO of SADD Nation, said this teenage tendency to underestimate risk is an unavoidable fact tied in part to brain development. 

“Because the frontal lobe…the part of our brain that's responsible for that decision making process, isn't developed,” until age 25 or even 30, he said. “And so teens are literally unable to make the best decisions they can.”

Last year, Alexandria King, 19, of Kalamazoo, Mich., was driving home from a camping trip with three friends and a car full of gear. “I was distracted by a song playing on the radio and the nice day that I completely forgot to check my blind spot,” King said. By the time she noticed what was going on, she had already been rear-ended. “Nobody got hurt, luckily, but the van was totaled,” she said. 

Miya Timmer, 16, of Miami, hasn’t been in a major crash like King’s, but being a passenger in a car with a distracted driver has made a big impression. 

Miya Timmer (courtesy of Timmer).

“My friend, who I ride with very often, is always distracted by his phone, music, and even his own emotions,” she said.  It’s made her look at and change the way that she drives when she is behind the wheel.

“When I see him doing things like going on his phone, or getting mad at other drivers, or getting distracted easily by people outside, I realize I shouldn't do that because then he drives unsafely and I feel unsafe,”  Maya said. “I don’t want to do that and put other people in dangerous situations.” 

King’s and Miya’s experiences highlight the necessity for more messages that hit home for teens. While there are social factors pushing distracted driving, many of the teens agreed that many of the PSAs were forgettable, repetitive, or they weren’t displayed at the right areas to target teens.

Teens suggest solutions 

So what do teens think would work? The solutions from the survey were wide-ranging, but there were some that were repeatedly voiced. 

Many wanted to see more distracted driving messages throughout one’s life, not just in driver’s education. “Whether that was at traffic safety school, high school, or home, re-enforcing the consequences of distracted driving can help the message stick,” one respondent said.

Instead of having billboards and PSAs on parts of the highway, many of the teens wanted to see those PSAs more often in more “hotspots” areas of teen activity, while it was on social media like TikTok or in places teens frequent. “This way the government wouldn’t be putting their money into videos that teens won’t remember or even get to see,” one respondent said.

A lot of the teens wanted to hear about the real life impacts on young drivers like them. 

Neha and King think that messages and images about what happened to them would be more helpful than seeing billboards and ads not targeted specifically at them. This can also attack the social aspects of distracted driving; teen respondents suggest examples that illustrate that whatever is on that phone can wait. 

There seems to be a disconnect between what agencies and policymakers think would change things and the realities, the youth respondents said. 

In some states, there are already policies against hand-held cell phone usage, for drivers of all ages, including teens. Michigan is one of many states that are trying to address distracted driving through legislation. The state adopted a hands-free cell phone law in June 2023. 

Lieutenant Michael Shaw of the Michigan State Police said the new law “includes a fine of $110, but with court fees, it can rack up to $300.”

Shaw said the push to get the word out about the law, and its consequences, was on social media accounts as well as traditional TV and print media outlets throughout the state.  

He said that he hopes that the fine will push drivers, including those ages 18-24, to stop using their phones. 

Yet teens say the messaging and penalties are falling flat with them. One survey respondent suggested that agencies that are coming up with the campaigns, “need to be more creative and be in the right spot at the right times.”

The teens and law enforcement officers like Shaw do agree that potential distracted driving incidents could be prevented with better and more frequently targeted awareness of the dangers of distracted driving. 

Shaw said that it’s hard to bring home the dangers of distracted driving. “I have had to tell parents and loved ones that their child has died because of distracted driving crashes… But ultimately, preventing distracted driving rests on the teen driver.”

“It is important to remember that these aren’t accidents, these are crashes and are often deadly,” Shaw said. “These are preventable.”

King, who got rear-ended, said she now avoids driving. “I ride my bike and I check my blind spot like crazy,” she said. 

Neha said her near miss made the consequences real for her too.“The risk isn't worth it to text your friend back or change your music,” she said.

D’arin Floyd-Baldwin and D’avora Wiliams are juniors at Miami Lakes Educational Center in Miami, Rosie Hill is a sophomore at Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Grace Wang is a junior at Palatine High School in Palatine, Ill. They were participants in Youthcast Media Group’s fall workshop on transportation and worked with Michigan multimedia journalist and author Andrea King Collier. YMG is a nonprofit that teaches high school students across the country to report on health and social issues that impact communities of color, and the solutions to these issues.


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