James Hudziak, MD, and David Rettew, MD, are both child psychiatrists at the UVM Medical Center.

James Hudziak, MD, and David Rettew, MD, are both child psychiatrists at the UVM Medical Center.

Anyone driving today has likely encountered distracted drivers with their hands busily working their phone texting or emailing rather than being on the wheel. While these behavior are a safety concern for all, they may be particularly problematic for teens who are relatively new to driving (and also known to be quite fond of text messages). Motor vehicle accidents are the most common cause of death for older adolescents. This study recently published in the journal Pediatrics, utilizes data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey to document the rate of texting and/or emailing while driving among teens.

Subjects for the study included 8,505 teens from a  nationally representative sample who were at least 16 years of age. The participants completed the CDC’s 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey which asked about driving behaviors in the preceding 30 days.

In terms of results, slightly less than half of the respondents (44.5%) reported texting or emailing while driving at least once in the last 30 days. Of those, approximately one-quarter reported texting while driving every day.  Rates were higher among white students compared to black students and higher in males compared to females. Furthermore, those individuals who engage in texting/emailing while driving are somewhat more likely to engage in other risky driving behaviors such as drinking while driving, riding with someone else who is drinking, and not using a seatbelt.

The authors concluded that there was a high rate of texting or emailing while driving that is related to other types of risky driving behavior. These individuals are at increased risk of hurting themselves and others.  The study authors discuss the laws enacted in many states against texting or emailing while driving (including one here in Vermont), but note that there is little evidence these laws are having a major effect in reducing these behavior among adolescents. They cite evidence that good parental monitoring and explanation of driving rules may be the most effective strategy for producing safe driving behavior.

What is the role of primary care here? For one, primary care clinicians are encouraged to bring up this important issue as part of regular anticipatory guidance not only with teens directly but with the parents as well in order to help them spell out clear ground-rules for driving.  The finding of higher rates among adolescent males also flies against some prevailing gender stereotypes, and may remind parents of teen boys to have this issue on their radar screen. too.

Jim Hudziak, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the UVM Medical Center and director of our department of Child Psychiatry. He is also director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth & Families.

David C. Rettew, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the UVM Medical Center and director of the Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Program.

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