Talk to Your Teen Driver: Don’t Text and Drive

Everyone’s gearing up for the holidays. It’s that time of year when kids seem to spend more days out of school than they spend in, including lots of time to spend out with their friends. With icy roads and stormy weather, it’s a good time of year for a reminder about distracted driving.


We use smartphones so much that it can feel odd not to have one on your person. So much so, that some people even experience ghost vibrations when their phones are at home. Not only are they changing our physiology, they are affecting our mortality. We all know phones and driving do not mix, yet, we do it anyway.


The statistics are staggering. One out of every four auto accidents in the US are caused by distracted driving, the current moniker for driving while using a smartphone. Texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than drunk driving. Car accidents are the leading cause of teen death in this country; eleven of them caused by texting drivers everyday.


Couple those statistics with the invincibility most teens imagine, and of course parents are worried! But, did you know that teens actually text and drive less often than adults? Forty-eight percent of kids, 12-17 years of age, have been in the car while the adult driver was texting. Forty-eight percent report riding in the car while their parents talked on the phone. Compared to 43 percent of teen drivers, almost half of adult drivers admit to texting and driving even though they know it’s wrong, with younger adults behaving the most dangerously.


Perhaps it’s their newness that makes teen drivers more responsible behind the wheel than adults. Driving is not yet concretized in their procedural memories the way it becomes for more experienced drivers; so a teenage driver has to think more about what she’s doing than a seasoned adult. But, it’s just a matter of time before your teen has driving down, and then she runs the risk of becoming one of those growing statistics.


Set The Example You Expect


When it comes to teaching teens not to text and drive there are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, think about how you manage your smartphone while driving. You’re probably aware of this already, but kids learn so much more from what they see parents doing than what they hear us saying. If texting and driving is not the norm in your family, your teen driver will be less likely to pick up the habit. And, they’ll be even less likely still if you talk openly about the risks of distracted driving and your expectations of your new drivers. Likewise, if you text and drive yourself, it’s akin to giving non-verbal permission. What kind of driver are you?


Pleasure Seeking Effects Control


Another very important, and lesser known factor, is dopamine, the pleasure-seeking brain chemical. While many of us know dopamine as the chemical that controls the pleasure center of the brain, recent studies have shown that it actually controls pleasure seeking – a necessary activity that has motivated us to survive and thrive as a species. It’s not just physical pleasures that dopamine moves us to seek, it’s also abstract ones like ideas and information. It makes us curious. Then the opioid system kicks in and works with the dopamine system and causes us to experience the pleasure of the food we’ve just ingested, the research we’ve just discovered.


According to Susan Weinschenk Ph.D, behavioral psychologist and author of the blog Brain Wise, “with the internet, Twitter, and texting, you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds… It’s easy to get in a dopamine induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text.”


Dopamine is especially responsive to environmental cues that something pleasurable is coming. For Pavlov’s dogs, the tinkling of a bell. For us, the chime of an incoming text. A small cue, say the ping of a tweet, is just enough to send the dopamine surging, compelling us to fall down the internet rabbit hole. They keep us in constant pleasure seeking loops that we are virtually biologically powerless to resist.


Texting while driving feels so much better than the routine demands of driving, especially for teens. Changing dopamine levels in the adolescent brain suggest that a teenager actually requires more of the chemical to achieve the same level of pleasure that an adult does from the same activity, i.e. riskier behaviors to get the same thrill. Since the circuitry in a teenager’s brain is still developing, they are more likely to form addictions at this age, which might be why we see the uptick in driving-while-texting for young adults.


Break the Cycle


There are all kinds of ways we get distracted by a smartphone while driving. But, texting is the most dangerous because it involves multiple types of distraction: visual, manual, and cognitive. Bringing conscious awareness to our own behaviors is the best strategy to take when it comes to teaching kids to drive safely. Here are some tips for stopping distracted driving if you happen to be one of those adults kids see using their phones while driving:


  • Commit to putting your phone away while driving.
  • To make it easier, be sure that any cues it might provide you are unavailable by turning it off or putting it on silent (not vibrate – you’ll feel it) while you’re driving.
  • Cover the screen with a Post-It so you won’t be tempted to look at it at a red light. The Post-It will remind you of your commitment to safety.
  • Plan to communicate and check your inbox when you’ve arrived at your destination. Tell yourself this when you feel tempted to grab your phone.
  • Make use of the dopamine cycle by rewarding yourself for good behavior when you’ve made a trip without using your phone.


When it comes to talking to your teenager, here are some points to include:


  • The teenage brain is still developing which makes risky behavior more compelling and also more detrimental to them than it is to an older adult. This is a time when lifelong habits are formed, even though it feels like nothing bad can ever happen to them and they may believe that behaviors are easy to change. Not so when dopamine is involved.
  • Texting and driving makes you 23 times more likely to crash.
  • It causes 1,600,000 accidents each year and 11 teen deaths each day.
  • Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55 mph, that’s like covering the length of a football field blindfolded.
  • Have teens watch this video of real Belgian kids driving and texting.
  • Here’s a handy infographic with lots of stats about the dangers of distracted driving.

Jenny Kepler, MA, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and writer who has been helping families navigate parenthood for over 10 years. Her office is in downtown Portland, OR where she does in person therapy with adults, couples and families. She also offers parent coaching over the phone for people who can’t see her in Portland.


Statistics derived from:


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