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Study: Parents Are Really Distracted Drivers

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  May 6, 2013 08:20 AM

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kids in car.jpgAs someone who has been a parent for 22 years, I know firsthand just how hard driving kids around can be. When they are little they cry, as they get older they ask a million questions and fight with their siblings, and when they get older there's the whole issue of the radio, not to mention the chaos of friends in the car. But a study just released suggests that when it comes to parents and distracted driving, it's not just an "Are we there yet?" problem.

Researchers from the University of Michigan surveyed more than 600 parents about various common driving distractions. They asked them whether, in the past month, they had talked on the phone (handheld or hands-free), done child care (fed a child or picked up a toy), done self-care (grooming, eating), gotten directions (via a navigation system or a map), fiddled with the entertainment system (changing a CD or DVD), or texting/surfing the Internet. They also asked them if they did it during less than half the trips, more than half the trips or every trip.

The results (which, sadly, probably won't surprise most parents) were worrisome. Here's the rough breakdown of how many said yes to each: 
  • Phone calls: 75 percent (20 percent every trip)
  • Child care: 70 percent (25 percent every trip)
  • Self-care: 70 percent (10 percent every trip)
  • Directions: 50 percent (10 percent every trip)
  • Entertainment: 50 percent (5 percent every trip)
  • Texting: 15 percent (1 percent every trip)
Now, not all of this is necessarily awful. I don't know that it's that dangerous to munch on a cracker or listen to the nice GPS voice telling you to turn right in 30 yards while you drive. But some of it is dangerous; while  there is a general and understandable uproar about texting and driving (thank goodness the numbers in this study were lowest for that), the truth is that anything that takes our eyes or minds off the road can lead to disaster.

And that's what the researchers found, too. Parents who used phones while driving were more than twice as likely to have had a previous motor vehicle crash. Those who did child care, self care or got directions were about twice as likely, and those who fiddled with the entertainment or texted were about one and a half times more likely. 

Multitasking is an intrinsic part of parenthood. It's hard to imagine parenthood without it--I'm certainly someone who has done some pretty extreme multitasking. But I think that there are some times, and some places, when we just have to stop ourselves from multitasking. When we are driving our kids somewhere, well, that's one of those times.

Try pulling over to make phone calls (and certainly to text or use the Internet). Eat before you go--or stop and eat if it's a long ride. Make sure there are plenty of toys within reach for long car rides. Know where you are going before you leave. If they don't like the music or the movie, tough--unless you have someone with you who can change it, or until you can pull over. Try setting car rules and creating a culture of safety; it will lessen the arguments.

When we drive our children, let's treat them like the precious cargo they are.




Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post.


This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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