A research study conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and Toyota’s Collaborative Safety Research Center reveals that parental driving habits have a powerful influence on teenage drivers. Researchers surveyed more than 5,500 teens and parents across the country in an effort to investigate driving risks and pinpoint ways to ensure the safety of teen drivers.
“It should be a relief to parents to know that teens are still looking to them for guidance,” said Dr. Tina Sayer, principal engineer for Toyota's Collaborative Safety Research Center.
Teenagers’ first year behind the wheel is among the most dangerous in their lives, according to the National Safety Council — and research indicates that, starting with the first ride in a car, children observe how their parents drive and emulate those driving habits once they become licensed drivers.
“I definitely believe that teenagers mimic the way their parents drive,” said Kristin Weyenberg, a 17-year-old from Fairfax, Virginia. Weyenberg said that while her parents set a good example by always buckling their seatbelts, they are often less careful about phone use while driving.
For John Massone, weather conditions in his home state of Colorado meant that it was important for his two daughters to practice driving with their parents.
“We started with a lot of supervision and gradually let them gain experience,” said Massone, who lives in Boulder. Massone said he was very clear that his daughters were not allowed to text or use their phones while behind the wheel.
“It isn’t how you drive that matters, it’s how your teen thinks you drive,” said Ray Bingham, a professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. To promote safety, parents must drive the way they want their teens to drive, explained Bingham.
Texting remains a leading source of distraction for both teens and parents. Nearly two-thirds, or 61 percent, of parents said they use a handheld cell phone while driving, compared to the 54 percent of teenagers who said they have done the same. Roughly one in three teens said they read a text or email once or more each time they drive, and one in four teens said they respond to a text one time or more when they drive.
Weyenberg agreed that phone use is an issue for drivers her age. “A lot of my friends do text and drive, but we try to discourage them from doing that,” she said, adding that she and her friends help each other avoid distractions while in the car together.
Eleven percent of teenagers reported updating or checking social media sites like Facebook and Twitter while behind the wheel. Even more concerning, one in five teens and one in 10 parents said they conduct extended conversations via text message while driving.
Teens tend to report that their parents are distracted while driving slightly more than their parents say they are. Forty-six percent of teens thought their parents read or send texts while driving, while 36 percent of parents actually said they did.
Distraction doesn’t just come down to using a mobile phone behind the wheel.
“It’s not just the things that you do with your cell phone that are problematic,” Bingham said. “It’s anything that takes eyes off road or hands off the wheel.”
The study found that teenagers are very likely to copy parental tendencies to deal with passenger issues or search for something in the car while driving--and teens perceive it happening more than parents report. Eighty-five percent of teens thought their parents address passenger issues while driving, but 70 percent of parents reported doing this.
In some cases, however, teenage drivers are more prone to distraction. More than half of teens surveyed, 53 percent, say they look for music on a portable music player while driving, compared to only 12 percent of parents.
Parents should also be aware of the added risks posed by young drivers riding with other underage passengers. For 16- and 17-year-old drivers, the risk of being killed in a crash increases with each extra passenger under age 21, when there are no older passengers, the AAA Foundation has reported. Nearly 70 percent of teen drivers reported driving with two or three other teen passengers and no adults, a habit that, according to the AAA Foundation, doubles a driver’s risk of being killed in a crash when compared to driving alone.
Massone and Hughes said they talked to their children about the importance of careful driving, both to ensure the wellbeing of their teens and the safety of others on the road.
“We talked about what they could do to other people with the car and how it was not trivial to get in an accident,” Massone said.
So what can parents do to make sure their teens are safe while driving?
One possibility is setting up a driving agreement that clearly lays out what behavior is acceptable and appropriate when operating a vehicle. Weyenberg said her parents took this approach with her.
“My parents and I made this contract now that I have my license,” Weyenberg said. The agreement prohibits her from texting and talking on the phone while driving. The contract also set up guidelines about how many people could be in the car at once and stipulated that she would get her keys taken away if she broke the rules.
Massone said he and his wife strived to set the right example for his children. “If they see us on and off the phone, they’ll learn that behavior,” he said.
The most important thing parents can do, experts say, is simply talk to their children about safe driving.
“The only way to clear up misperceptions is to communicate about them,” Bingham said. “Parents should be honest with their teens and say, ‘We both need to work on this.’”