Help… My Teenager Drives Like a 70-Year-Old!

That will be the cry of parents everywhere if they do not enforce state laws – or their own house rules – prohibiting their teens from talking on a cellular telephone while driving.

Research published by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) says that talking on a cell phone turns the reaction time of the average 20-year-old driver into that of a 70-year-old. Researchers observed study participants on four simulated 10-mile trips lasting 10 minutes each. Participants talked on a cell phone during half of the trips and drove without talking for the other half. Hands-free cell phones were used for the study. The results of the study indicated that young drivers were 18% slower in braking response time and took 17% longer to regain the speed they lost while braking when they were using the cell phone.

The difference seems small but is significant – an extra fraction of a second could mean the difference between life and death in an emergency situation.

Young drivers (the term typically refers to drivers under the age of 21) need to know that the fast reflexes and excellent coordination they take for granted can easily be compromised when they submit to the lure of using a cell phone behind the wheel.

And parents of young drivers need to know that enforcement of cell phone laws depends on the example they set for their own teens and enforcement of (or creation of, if there’s no state law) a strict rule about not driving while talking on a cell phone in their own household. Recent research indicates that enactment of a state law prohibiting cell phone use while driving is not sufficient to keep teens from doing so.

A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety/UNC Highway Safety Research Center showed that teenage drivers’ cell phone use actually went up after the state of North Carolina enacted a ban on cell phone use by young drivers. The ban on cell phone use by drivers younger than age 18 is part of the state’s graduated licensing program.

One to two months prior to the ban’s start on Dec. 1, 2006, researchers observed 11% of teen drivers using cell phones as they drove away from school in the afternoon. About five months after the ban, they observed nearly 12% of teen drivers using phones. Half of the teens surveyed by phone after the law took effect said that they had used their cell phones, if they had driven, the day before the interview.

Interestingly, both young drivers and their parents strongly support the law (74% of teens and 95% of their parents) and say that the problem is that it isn’t being enforced. But teens have a far better rate of compliance with other graduated licensing restrictions even when those laws aren’t well-enforced.

“Most young drivers comply with graduated licensing restrictions such as limits on nighttime driving and passengers, even when enforcement is low,” says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research and an author of the study. “The hope in North Carolina was that the same would hold true for cell phone use, but this wasn’t the case…Parents play a big role in compliance with graduated licensing rules.”

Studies show that teenage minds are predisposed to risk-taking. In 2005 and 2006, a series of risk-reward studies across a range of age groups funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and published in The Journal of Neuroscience showed that when confronted with risky choices, the brains of teenagers exhibit twice as much activity in the impulse area as adult brains, while the area that expresses restraint shows less activity. The study indicated that it takes until the early 20s for the two areas to reach parity.

This biological imperative to throw caution to the wind, combined with a teenager’s natural rebellion and peer pressure to be able to handle dangerous situations without exhibiting fear, is a deadly mix.

Enforcement of the law is typically the purview of law enforcement, not parents. But a teen may only be motivated to comply when the law and parental “house rules” intersect, as in the case of driving curfews that are part of the graduated driver’s license programs in most states and household curfews that parents implement for the health and safety of their children.

“Cell phone bans for teen drivers are difficult to enforce,” McCartt says. “Drivers with phones to their ears aren’t hard to spot, but it’s nearly impossible for police officers to see hands-free devices or correctly guess how old drivers are.”

And Barbara Harsha, executive direction of the Governors Highway Safety Association, says, “What [cell phones while driving] laws do is send the message to the parent more than anything else.”

When surveyed after the cell phone restrictions in North Carolina took effect, only 39% of parents said they were aware of the cell phone law, compared with 64% of teen drivers. If only 39% of parents even knew the law existed, how many parents had discussed the law with their children? If parents knew about the law, they could use it to support their own house rules. If cell phone use while driving hadn’t been banned by the parents previously, they could use the state law as support for a new house rule.

Perhaps most difficult for some parents is setting a good example for their teens. Parents must drive the speed limit, wear their seat belts, avoid driving distractions such as cell phone use, and drive defensively. They should pull over to use their cell phones or have a passenger answer it instead. Parents should use this time to point out drivers who demonstrate risky behavior, including talking on cell phones, and initiate a discussion by asking the teen driver to explain why it’s unsafe. Here is a Parent Teen Driving Contract with recommendations from the Driver Education Handbook for Parents to help you and your teen compose a practical contract of rules regarding driving expectations.