Amid alarming statistics about the number of teens who text or use cell phones while driving, school districts are starting to play a role in educating their students about the dangers of such behaviors.
During a Nov. 20 assembly on distracted driving, students at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Va., heard from local law-enforcement and community members about the need to break the dangerous texting-while-driving habit, especially as new drivers behind the wheel.
"Certainly, technology has taken off," said Capt. Susan Culin, commander of Fairfax County Police’s traffic division. "And it’s the norm for teenagers."
But using cell phones while driving can cause distractions that lead to accidents and injuries, she added.
"If talking on a cell phone while driving is dangerous, texting while driving is even worse," she said. "I can’t stress enough how dangerous this is."
Teenagers lack driving experience and are still learning, Culin said, and to stay safe, they should keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel–not on a cell phone.
High school drivers have every right to be excited about the freedom that a driver’s license offers, Lt. Col. Robert Northern, deputy superintendent of the Virginia State Police, told the assembled students.
"But with that freedom comes a tremendous responsibility as you learn to operate a 4,000-pound vehicle," he said. "What’s it all for? To answer an eMail or call? Can’t that wait?"
Northern said that avoiding four key things while driving can save lives: speeding, alcohol, failing to wear a seatbelt, and driver distraction–including texting.
A University of Utah study showed that a 20-year-old driver on a cell phone had the same reaction time as a 70-year-old. And regardless of age, drivers on cell phones are 18 percent slower in hitting the brakes and 17 percent slower to regain speed after braking.
"Drivers using phones are twice as likely to have an accident or a near miss," said John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic. "Remember, 25 percent of people in your age group have texted while driving," he told the audience.
The assembly coincided with a new report on teens and distracted driving released by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.
"Teens and Distracted Driving" surveyed 800 teens ages 12-17 and a parent or guardian, as well as 9 focus groups with middle and high school students.
The report reveals that 26 percent of U.S. teenagers who are old enough to drive say they have texted while driving, and 43 percent of American teens ages 16-17 said they have talked on a cell phone while driving. (See "Study: One-fourth of teen drivers text behind the wheel.)
Almost half–48 percent–of all teens ages 12-17 say they have been a passenger in a car while the driver has texted behind the wheel. And 40 percent said they have been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put himself or others in danger.
A September survey from Transurban, FLUOR, and AAA Mid-Atlantic queried 1,047 drivers who regularly travel the Capital Beltway, a high-volume highway that serves Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., and is familiar to Woodson students. The beltway is traveled by 210,000 drivers on a typical weekday.
That survey found that 56 percent of respondents said they use their cell phone to call, read, or write text messages daily while driving. Half of those surveyed said they have had an accident or a near miss as a result of texting while driving.
Many states are quickly passing cell phone and text messaging legislation as it pertains to driving. Virginia bans text messaging for all drivers, bans all cell phone use for school bus drivers, and bans all cell phone use for drivers under the age of 18. Maryland passed a law on Oct. 1 to ban texting while driving. Colorado, Illinois, and New Hampshire are among the states that have texting bans set to go into effect soon.