iPhone Apps Continue to Distract Teen Drivers at Alarming Rates

Since the rise of the smartphone generation, distracted driving from cell phone use among teens has been a widely discussed concern among parents, especially.  Signs urging drivers, “Don’t Text and Drive” and “It Can Wait” can be found on highways, residential roads, and bumper stickers.  But there may be another hazard rooted in teenagers’ attachments to their smartphones other than the familiar texting problem.  Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) have recently released new research that provides evidence of the dangers mobile applications can pose to adolescent drivers.  The study found that while 27 percent of teens still report texting and driving, up to 68 percent of teens report using apps while they drive.  The teens were also asked to rank hazardous driving behaviors in regards to how dangerous they thought the behaviors were.  Researchers found that these teens perceived using social media apps while driving to be much less dangerous than texting and driving, or driving while intoxicated, for example.

In addition to the self-reported survey the teens completed, the study also included implicit association testing (IAT), a method that has been used for two decades to measure unconscious bias.  Through IAT, teens were given a variety of visual driving scenarios, including texting, using mobile apps, and receiving phone calls, and they were also given a series of words.  The test measured the speed with which the teens associated the different scenarios with the words, which then showed their instinctual feelings in regards to distracted and hazardous driving behaviors.  Examples of words that appeared in the test include, “distracting,” “safe,” and “fun”.  When researchers compared the results of the IAT with the responses the teens gave through the survey, they found several inconsistencies between what the teens said versus how they actually act when presented with the situation.  From the self-reported survey, 95 percent of teens conceded that using a mobile app while driving is dangerous.  Yet, when the same teens were given a virtual scenario of an app notification on their smartphone, a whopping 80 percent of participants linked app use while driving with the phrase, “not distracting.”  Dr. Gene Beresin, senior advisor on adolescent psychiatry with SADD and executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, emphasized the importance of the tests results in providing an insight to adolescent drivers.  “This research identifies teens’ underlying beliefs about key driving habits, providing insight into what teens really believe,” Beresin said.  “Teens as a whole are saying all the right things, but implicitly believe that using their phone while driving is safe and not a stressor or distraction behind the wheel.”

An inherent problem with some mobile apps is that they can be viewed as utilities.  Navigation and music playing apps may even be considered necessary by teens to get from point A to point B.  However, this perception confuses teens by disguising the hazards that are still prevalent in mobile apps.  Although 41 percent of teens surveyed thought that using navigation apps while driving is distracting, 58 percent still say they use them while driving.  Dr. William Horrey, Ph.D., principal research scientist at the Liberty Mutual Insurance Research Institute for Safety, emphasizes “It’s not the apps themselves that are dangerous, but how we, and our teens, interact with them while behind the wheel.”  If teens are constantly looking through playlists, searching for songs, changing the destination while navigating, etc, while using these apps, their driving can be significantly impaired.  However, picking one playlist and setting one destination at the beginning of a trip can allow for safe and undistracted driving.

Horrey and Beresin offer a few tips for parents of teen drivers to help them prevent distracted driving with their children.  The presence of a cellphone nearby is a constant temptation for teens while driving.  73 percent of teens report having their phones within reach while driving alone.  For this reason, Horrey and Beresin advise parents to have conversations with their teens about keeping their phones away and on silent so that they are less of a temptation while driving.  Another major reason teens use their phones behind the wheel is to navigate.  Parents should teach teens to set the destination before driving and to pull over if they need to change destinations or check directions again.  Lastly, Liberty Mutual Insurance and SADD remind parents to utilize the Teen Driving Contract as a facilitator to communicate with teens about expectations on the road.


“Apps Pose New Danger to Teens While Driving.” Claims Journal News. N.p., 02 Aug. 2016. Web. 02 Aug. 2016.

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