Distracted Driving and Youth

An 18 year old female is brought to the emergency department by ambulance for a motor vehicle accident. She was texting on her cell phone when she hit a guard rail. When rescuers at the scene arrived, they had to work quickly to cut the guard rail apart as it had went through the car and penetrated in her leg. In order to save her life, the female requires immediate surgery to amputate her leg. The parents were notified and are on their way. Unfortunately, recently, this has been an all too familiar scenario in the media.

What is distracted driving? Distracted driving is a form of multitasking while driving a vehicle such as talking on a cell phone or texting. All of these require drivers to take their eyes off the road, take their hands off the wheel, and take their mind off what they are doing while operating a vehicle. Distracted driving endangers the driver, passengers, and others.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in the United States. For example, more than 350,000 15-19 years old adolescents were treated in the emergency department and 3,000 were killed in 2009 due to motor vehicle crashes. Furthermore, per the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration more than 5,400 people were killed and 550,000 were injured as a result of distracted driving during the same year. Drivers under the age of 20 have the highest proportion of distracted driving fatal crashes.

In 2009, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of 800 teens aged 12-17 asking about their experience with cell phone use in cars. The results are disturbing. In the teens 16-17, 34 percent text while driving and 52 percent talk on a cell phone while driving. Likewise, teens ages 12-17, 48 percent have been in a car when the driver was texting and 40 percent have been in a car when the driver used a cell phone and put them or others in danger.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute recently studied driver distraction in commercial vehicles. Text messaging had the greatest risk. Drivers of heavy vehicles were 23 times more likely to crash or have a near crash event. The study also found that drivers take their eyes off the road for 4.6 out of 6 seconds while texting. If a driver is traveling at 55 mph this equals the distance of a football field that the driver is not looking at the road.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that all states ban drivers from using electronic devices while driving, including cell phones and text messaging. Currently, nine states ban drivers from using any electronic devices while driving and 35 states ban texting while driving. Vermont law states all portable electronic device use is banned for drivers under 18 and texting from such devices is banned for all drivers. Technology is in the process of prohibiting the use of these devices in moving vehicles.

What can you do? Know the law! Speak with your kids about distracted driving and the risks of injury and death. Encourage responsible cell phone use and texting. If you want more information go to www.handsfreeinfo.com.

To go along with today's health matters article, visit our Facebook page to learn more information about distracted driving and what else you can do to help.


Dr. Jane L. Uva, MPH is an emergency department physician and also works in the occupational health department at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. To learn more about SVMC visit www.svhealthcare.org. “Health Matters” is a weekly column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.