January 27, 2010

Why Pediatricians Need to Discuss Texting and Driving In Our Offices

By John Moore, MD, FAAP

As part of my daily commute from my home to my office and back, I spend about thirty minutes per day driving on Interstate 81 through central Virginia. That commute has allowed me the fascinating and frightening opportunity to observe first-hand the recklessness and aggression of the modern American driver. Over the last seven years, I have seen drivers of cars, trucks, motorcycles, and vans doing almost everything imaginable except paying attention to the road. I have witnessed people been drinking coffee, scolding their children, applying makeup, and even flossing their teeth.

While hard data on the numbers of drivers texting or surfing while driving are not available, anecdotal and observational studies are very concerning. A recent survey by Nationwide Insurance estimated that twenty percent of drivers either send or receive text messages while driving. That number of people who drive while texting reaches a staggering sixty-six percent when limited to 18-24 year-olds.

The exact impact of texting on automobile safety is impossible to gauge. No reliable data exists to associate texting, distracted driving and accidents. However, anecdotal data continued to accumulate and the potential impact may be staggering. Several recent, dramatic deadly crashes in New York and Florida have been associated with drivers sending and receiving text messages.

Fourteen states, including Virginia, New Jersey, and Washington DC, have taken action to address that issue. In July of this year, police in Virginia began fining drivers caught texting while driving. The penalty for those caught is only $20-$50, but the psychological impact may be more profound. Hopefully, the new legislation in Virginia and other states will make motorists think about their messages and exactly how important that text really is.

As pediatricians, we are faced with the task of helping our patients navigate the complex path from childhood to adulthood as smoothly as possible. We know that teens are at significantly increased risk of automobile accidents. In addition, teens are the quickest adaptors of new, exciting, and dangerous technology. In the case of texting and driving, that combination has proven to be deadly in several well-documented cases. If we can get one teen to ignore their phone and concentrate on the road a little closer, we have made immeasurable difference in their lives. In my opinion, the ability to make huge differences in lives is why we all became pediatricians in the first place.