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Ninety percent of parents are distracted drivers, putting children at risk

Keep eyes on the road at all times while driving
Keep eyes on the road at all times while driving
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The vast majority of parents are guilty of distracted driving habits, including cell phone use, while driving, even when they have young children in the car, according to a new study.

In the University of Michigan survey, 90 percent of parents said they were guilty of at least one distraction while driving in the past month, such as using a cell phone, feeding a child, or changing a CD. The survey included 570 drivers who were questioned about driving practices in 2011 and 2012 when they brought their children (ages one to 12) to the hospital for emergency care.

“I had this expectation that parents might do a little bit better in terms of distractions when their kids were in the car and they might think twice about picking up the cellphone,” says lead study author Michelle Macy, MD, MS, an emergency medicine physician at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. “But our numbers show that parents are using cell phones behind the wheel when their kids are in the car as much as our national numbers would suggest it’s going on.”

In 2012, about 421,000 Americans were injured in motor vehicle crashes that involved a distracted driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — an increase from 387,000 in 2011. In addition, 169,000 children ages 14 and under were injured as the result of a motor vehicle crash in 2012, according to NHTSA, although those injuries were not necessarily caused by a distracted driver.

The study asked parent drivers how often in the past month they engaged in 10 distractions across four categories:

• non-driving related,
• cell phone-related,
• child-related
• and directions-related.

The study also asked about other measures of driving safety, such as being impaired with drugs or alcohol, drowsy driving or ever being pulled over for speeding, as follows:.

• One out of five parents admitted to driving while drowsy in the past year.
• 5.3 percent admitted to driving while impaired
• Half of the parents admitted to ever being pulled over for speeding.

White parents were more likely than black parents to report being distracted by directions or cell phone use. That finding may be linked to whites having a higher socioeconomic status, which could allow them to have better access to technologies such as cell phones or GPS systems while driving, according to the researchers.

Distracted driving is often blamed on teens and young adults, but older Americans are susceptible as well, says Macy. Efforts to spread awareness of distracted driving should be spread across all age groups, she notes.

Some states and municipalities have passed legislation to outlaw text messaging while driving, but other things that distract parents are harder to legislate, such as child feeding. Macy says she’s concerned parents may not be setting good examples of safe driving for their children when they grow up and learn how to drive.

“I think as kids growing up in a car where doing five things while you’re driving is the norm, they’re going to expect to be able do that as they’re learning [to drive},” she explains. “Role modeling is the greatest concern for me in terms of the downstream effects for this.”