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driving concerns

We’re getting to the point now where teens old enough to drive grew up using smartphones and tablets. I’m worried that when all these YouTube and TikTok kids start driving, we’ll see a surge in distracted driving. Will they be more likely to drive while distracted? – Corinne, Toronto

Statistically, teen drivers have a greater risk of dying in a distracted driving crash than any other age group, a safety expert said.

But growing up online might not be the problem – generally, teens aged 16 to 19 take more risks on the road than older drivers.

“[Teens aged 16 to 19] have the highest crash risk as a result of their age and inexperience,” said Robyn Robertson, chief executive officer of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), an Ottawa-based not-for-profit focused on reducing traffic injuries. “When it comes to distracted driving and fatal crashes, 23 per cent of [drivers aged 16 to 19 killed in crashes] were considered to be distracted compared to about 15 per cent of 20 to 24-year-olds. For all ages, the average was 15 per cent.”

According to Toronto-based injury-prevention non-profit Parachute, in 2018, the most recent year with data, road crashes were the second-leading cause of death from injuries among people between the ages of 15 to 19 – the first was suicide. That year, 113 teens between 15 and 19 died in crashes in Canada.

Kylee Bowman, 20, lead of TIRF’s youth advisory committee, said she’s heard people her age brag about getting away with risky behaviour on the road.

“They turn the risk-taking into a cool story they can tell at a party,” Bowman said. “‘Yeah, I was using my phone … and I made it past the police.’”

Left to their own devices?

So are teens more likely to use devices while driving than adults? There isn’t much research on that yet, Robertson said.

But Toronto police constable Sean Shapiro, who speaks about distracted driving at schools for TIRF, said plenty of people of all ages are still driving using their devices.

In Toronto so far this year, police have issued more than 6,700 tickets.

“If we go out for an hour, I could probably find 100 distracted drivers,” Shapiro said.

Distracted driving laws in most provinces only cover using electronic devices – although you can be charged for other kinds of distraction under careless driving laws.

But anything that takes your focus off the road – whether it’s a hands-free call, fiddling with infotainment system or rummaging through the centre console – could cause a crash, Robertson said.

But when it comes to using devices while driving, teens are probably more comfortable with the technology than older adults, Robertson said.

“A number of studies have been done on closed courses or in simulators comparing young and older drivers performing a distracting task,” Robertson said. “Older drivers take longer and find it more challenging.”

But that doesn’t mean that even tech-savvy teens aren’t dangerously distracted by tech. At any age, anything that takes your eyes off the road can put you in danger of a crash, Robertson said.

“You don’t know when the unexpected will happen,” Robertson said. “You can’t plan for that unexpected school bus or that dump truck … so you have to be watching constantly.

Bad examples

Teens also learn risky driving behaviour, including distracted driving, from watching their parents and other adults drive, Robertson said.

In a 2018 survey by researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, they asked parents whether they ever drove distracted with kids in the vehicle: 47 per cent of parents reported they talked on a handheld phone, nearly 34 per cent read texts, nearly 27 per cent sent texts and nearly 14 per cent used social media.

“When we do school presentations for young people [and] we ask them what they’ve observed their parents do, a number say they’ve observed parents driving distracted,” Robertson said. “But few say they’ve spoken up about it.”

In presentations at schools, TIRF encourages kids to speak up any time they see a driver – whether it’s their parents or their friends – doing anything unsafe.

“For years and years, people made fun of back-seat drivers,” Toronto police’s Shapiro said. “We want to bring back the back-seat driver. We want people to speak out. We have to make [distracted driving and other dangerous driving habits] socially uncomfortable.”

FOMO on the road

In TIRF’s 2021 survey of 1,500 drivers, 7.4 per cent said they were likely to drive distracted – that’s up from 4.2 per cent in 2020, Robertson said.

“That’s 7.4 per cent of 26 million drivers,” Robertson said. “So we’ve lost some of the gains we’ve made.”

It’s not clear why some drivers say they’re more likely to use phones on the road, despite knowing the risks.

But Bowman thinks that for the younger generation at least, FOMO (fear of missing out) is a part of it.

That desire to connect socially could tempt some teens to check their phones while driving lest they miss out on an invitation, she said. (But as safety advocates and driving instructors like to point out, they’d miss out on a lot more if they were to end up dead, in hospital or in jail.)

Also, younger drivers feel like they have to answer calls and texts from parents “or they’ll get in trouble,” Bowman said.

That desire to stay connected at all times – whether it’s to friends, family or work – isn’t necessarily unique to teens, Shapiro said. “There are endorphins released [in your brain] every time you get a text message, every time you get a comment on an Instagram post,” Shapiro said. “Whenever I stopped someone [for using a device while driving], along with a ticket, they were given clear instructions to put their phone in the trunk so they wouldn’t use it.”

Near misses send wrong message

Drivers who continue to use devices while driving are often aware that distracted driving is dangerous, but “they don’t see themselves as a distracted driver,” Robertson said.

Even a near miss on the road – swerving out of a lane or hitting the rumble strip – makes some drivers think they’re good drivers because they didn’t get in a crash, Robertson said.

But the reality is, a near miss just means that your distracted driving hasn’t caused a crash yet, Robertson said.

“Instead of making behaviour changes, people think ‘Phew, I got away with it,’” Shapiro said.

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