Parents are often poor role models when it comes to driving. They text, talk on the phone, speed and even drive while impaired by drugs or alcohol. That's especially bad news because parents are the biggest influence on how kids drive — and crashes are the No. 1 cause of teen death.
A survey of 1,700 high school seniors and juniors nationwide, conducted last year for Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions, found high correlation between what teens do behind the wheel and what they've watched their parents do.
Two-thirds of teen drivers said their parents "live by different rules" than they tell their teens they expect them to obey. That disconnect can be hazardous, experts said.
"I don't think there's any doubt, whether it's driving or social life in general. They develop bad habits from the parents, with whom they spend 98 percent of the time they're in a car," said Lynn Moncur, the athletic director at Brighton High School who has been teaching driver's education for 26 years. "I'll ask questions. Do your parents look right when they turn right? No."
By the time teens turn 16 and get a license, "Mom and dad are tired of driving them around. They hand over the keys with a 'Be careful, be careful. Do what you're supposed to do,'" Moncur said.
Often, he said, they instead do what they've seen.
A barrage of examples
Kellie Wright is acutely conscious of that as her daughter, Sara Weymouth, watches her more closely even than before. Sara, 15, will get her license this year. And she's soaking up what she sees as she rides with others.
"I try not to talk on the phone when she's in the car," said Wright, of West Jordan.
Sending kids confusing signals about the dos and don't of driving puts them at risk, experts caution. Worldwide, nearly 1.5 million people are killed each year in vehicle crashes. Nationally, 33,808 people died in traffic fatalities in 2009, the last year for which a complete count is available. In Utah, 233 people died in crashes last year. Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death not only for teens, but for children 4 and older.
New stories repeatedly offer examples of tragedies prompted by inattentive driving. This week, prosecutors in Provo announced they will charge a 29-year-old man with homicide for allegedly killing a pedestrian; authorities believe he was texting while driving on the Brigham Young University campus two years ago. New York authorities arrested a driver they said was speeding and "reeked of alcohol" after he allegedly hit an airport shuttle van near Radio City Music Hall in New York City, injuring five people, some severely, in a predawn crash Sunday. Such reports are a steady drumbeat across the nation and the world, expert say.
In the research, which included several focus groups in Georgia and Massachusetts and a nationwide survey early this year, 91 percent of teens said they'd seen their parents talk on the cellphone while driving and 88 percent said they had seen their parents speed. Their own number on those two behaviors were 90 percent and 94 percent. Nearly half the kids admitted speeding often, not just occasionally. Nearly 6 in 10 said they'd witnessed parents sending texts while driving, while their own rate was 8 in 10. Twenty percent said they'd seen their parents drive under the influence of alcohol and 15 percent had done it themselves. And 7 percent of parents reportedly used marijuana and drove, while more than double that number, 16 percent of teens, said they'd done that.
Dangerous, but still...
The teens surveyed recognize the dangers, but they copy the behavior themselves because they see their parents get away with it repeatedly, said David Melton, Liberty Mutual's managing director for global road safety. What teenagers likely don't realize, though, is that their own inexperience puts them at even graver risk, although it's precarious enough for parents, too.
"You can exhibit risky behavior and nothing happens and you seem invincible and then tragedy does occur," said Melton. "We know this do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do approach does not work. Children need consistent role models in not only driving but pretty much everything else, and I hope parents will begin to understand the impact they have on their kids, especially with driving where the stakes are so high.
What kids need are good role models, said Stephen Wallace, senior adviser for policy, research and education for SADD National in Marlborough, Mass. "We hope this is a wake-up call for parents that your kids are watching what you do," he said.
The survey also found that few teens will speak up and ask a parent to stop engaging in distracted behavior while driving. But when they do, nearly three-fourths said their parents pay attention and change their poor driving behavior.
To promote that and provide a conversation starter between parents and teens, Liberty Mutual and SADD have a driving contract, available at libertymutual.com/teendriving, that they encourage parents and teens to download, discuss and sign. It's free and has a place to create customized rules and consequences, in addition to a pledge to learn and obey all driving rules, never drive under the influence and not talk or text on the cellphone while driving.
The vast majority of kids — more than 90 percent — said having their parents trust them is important, and 71 percent said having a written agreement outlining rules and consequences would bolster trust.
The parent's pledge concludes with "I agree to obey all the rules and laws that I expect you to obey; to provide safe and sober transportation if you are in a situation that threatens your safety; and to defer discussion about potentially destructive decisions you may make until we can both conduct a calm and caring conversation."
The teen pledge says, "I also agree to avoid potentially destructive decisions that can jeopardize my health and safety and those of my passengers; and that I will do my best to earn and keep your trust while I'm on the road."
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