The Latest Road Risk? Parents Who Drive Distracted

Medically reviewed in January 2020

When you get on the road with your children, there are lots of things that you probably view as the biggest threats to your safety: traffic conditions, the weather, other drivers swerving in front of you or changing lanes like maniacs. But there’s another thing that poses a major threat -- and you may be surprised to learn that if you drive when you’re distracted, it’s you.

A recent study in the journal Academic Pediatrics found that of the parents interviewed with children ages 1 to 12, 90% admitted to having one or more distractions while driving in the past month, including talking on a cell phone, changing a DVD, giving food to a child, picking up a toy or game, brushing hair and using an electronic navigation system.

The fact that parents are taking their eyes off the road (it’s not all about texting teens!) is frightening, and so are the statistics. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving has caused 27,000 deaths since 2009, with 448,000 people injured in motor vehicle collisions involving a distracted driver in 2009. While statistics for children are not separately broken out, they are most definitely included.

So what to do? Other than never take your children in the car until they’re 18 (hmmmm … duly noted but highly impractical), recognition of the danger is the crucial first step. While many drivers are aware of the grim statistics, they think they don’t apply to them (part of that magical thinking we all give into from time-to-time—it won’t happen to me!).

But it can. Here are four “musts” to follow when you’re behind the wheel:

  1. Avoid “distraction overload”: When the baby’s screaming as I’m driving down the highway there’s not much I can do to prevent her screaming from distracting me. I’m distracted! But I can avoid adding more distractions by using my phone (to tell hubby to hurry up and heat her food!) or reaching back to try to appease her. 
  2. Pull over: Often, a quick pull-off can address the problem (dirty diaper? Dropped passy? Needs a sippy cup?). I know it’s annoying to further delay the trip (especially when you’re already 90 minutes late because it takes an hour to get out of the house with a baby). But in this case it’s better to be late(r) than sorry.
  3. Let it be: Sometimes it’s best to just let them cry/be thirsty/live without their favorite toy for a few moment – I promise, it won’t permanently damage their psyche. Or harass their sister (hey, I was once a harassed sister so I don’t take this lightly.) Turning around and taking your eyes off the road for even a few seconds to avoid a minor catastrophe only puts you at risk for a major one.
  4. Set a good example. Worried about your soon-to-be-driving teen talking and texting while she’s driving? Then give her a good example to emulate. And that means NOT checking your phone at stop signs and red lights or texting and driving yourself. In fact, to be truly safe and resist the temptation, mute it or turn it off until you reach your destination.

As an ER doctor, I know too well what it’s like to treat traffic accident victims -- and to share terrible news with family members. For everyone’s sake, let’s all take a vow to keep our eyes on the road and our hands on the wheel. It’s the only way to go!

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