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More than half of all parents talk on cellphones — and a quarter send texts — while driving with young children, study finds

Driving and talking
Photo by Alexandre Boucher on Unsplash
Distracted driving is considered a public health crisis.

More than half of parents use cellphones while driving with young children in their cars, according to a study published Thursday in the Journal of Pediatrics. The study also found that about a third of parents read text messages — and a quarter send them — while driving with their children.

These findings are disturbing. It means that far too many people continue to be in denial about the dangers of using a cellphone — including a hands-free one — while behind the wheel. 

As I’ve reported in Second Opinion before, traffic-safety experts have found that using a hands-free phone while driving can keep you distracted for up to 27 seconds after you’ve finished the call. 

Even while driving at a relatively slow speed of 25 mph, that 27 seconds would take you the distance of almost three football fields.

Distracted driving is considered a public health crisis. It was a factor in 3,157 fatal crashes on American roads in 2016, or 9 percent of all fatal crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

More than 3,400 people died in those crashes, including many children.

Study details

For the current study, researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing surveyed a national sample of 760 adults from 47 U.S. states. More than 96 percent of the respondents were parents of at least one child between the ages of 4 and 10. The rest were “routine caregivers” (grandparents and other relatives) of a child that age. Each respondent reported having driven with a child at least six times during the previous three months.

More than half of the parents (52.2 percent) acknowledged that they had talked on a hands-free phone while driving with their young child during the three months prior to being surveyed, and almost half (47 percent) said they had done the same with a hand-held phone.

The survey also revealed that 33.7 percent of the parents had read text messages, and 26.7 percent had sent such messages, while driving with their child.  

In addition, almost one in seven of the parents (13.7 percent) admitted that they had used social media while driving with their child. 

Links with other risky behaviors

The researchers also looked to see if there was a correlation between the parents’ use of cellphones while driving and other risky driving behaviors. 

They found that drivers who did not consistently use child restraint systems or wear a seatbelt themselves — or who drove while under the influence of alcohol — were significantly more likely to talk or text on a cellphone while driving.

For example, 14.5 percent of the parents surveyed said they did not consistently used booster seats and other child restraint systems when driving with their child. 

Those parents were twice as likely to talk on their cellphones and three times more likely to use a phone for social media while driving with their child than parents who said they did properly restrain their child during each car ride.

Limitations and implications

The study comes with several important caveats. Most notably, the study relied on self-reports of the parents’ driving behavior, which may or may not have been entirely accurate. Also, the parents who were surveyed were not nationally representative of all U.S. parents with young children. 

Still, the study’s findings indicate that a significant proportion of parents and caregivers are engaging in driving behaviors that puts the lives of their children (as well as the lives of other people) at risk.

The study’s authors urge pediatricians and other clinicians to talk with parents about safe-driving practices, including the importance of not using cellphones in the car.

“This type of education is especially pivotal today, as in-vehicle technology is rapidly changing and there is increased — and seemingly constant — [reliance] on cellphones,” said Catherine McDonald, the study’s lead author and a senior fellow at CHOP’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention, in a released statement.

“However, it is also important to note that even parents who did not engage in risky behaviors, such as not wearing a seat belt as a driver or driving under the influence of alcohol, still used their cellphones while driving,” she added.

FMI:You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Journal of Pediatrics website, but the full study is behind a paywall.

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