The Dangers of Distracted Driving in Teens

Ms. Purnima Unni, Manager of the Pediatric Trauma Injury Prevention Program at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, discusses the hazards of distracted driving in teens and strategies for prevention. 

VUMC Teen Driver Safety Program

Distracted Driving Facts and Stats

Begin Transcript

Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness wellcast.  I'm Shaina Farfel with Occupational Health.  Today, we are speaking with Purnima Unni, manager of the Pediatric Trauma Injury Prevention Program at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.  Purnima, thanks so much for being with us today.

Purnima Unni:  Thank you for having me.

Shaina Farfel:  Getting your drivers license as a teenager is sort of a rite of passage, but with this newfound freedom comes a fair amount of risk, especially in the age of cell phones and other electronic devices.  Since April is National Distracted Driving Awareness month, I wanted to discuss distracted driving as it relates to teenagers, sort of our youngest and most inexperienced drivers out on the roads.  What are the most common types of distracted driving in teens and are teens more likely to engage in distracted driving than adults?

Purnima Unni:  Yeah.  It's a great question.  So, I think, first, it is really important that we understand what distracted driving is.  So, distracted driving is anythingthat takes your eyes away from the task of driving.  So, that can include anything from texting and driving to passengers in the car to putting your makeup on to turning the phone.  So, all that kind of stuff falls in the realm of distracted driving.  When we talk about the most common distractions with teens, we are usually talking about, A, the phones.  So, there is a constant need among teens to stay connected.  So, they are always on the phone texting and getting in touch with their friends.  So, phones is a big distraction.  Friends.  A big part of driving, again, is the ability to carry your friends around when you are a teen.  There is a lot of research that shows that with every additional passenger a teen has in their car, the risk of a crash kind of goes up.  Then, music.  Music is a huge factor.  You know, they have their playlists and they are always wanting to change the playlist.  So, all of these are huge factors when it comes to common distractions among teens.  So, you asked the other question about, you know, is it more dangerous, an adult or a teen, and the reality is that car wrecks are the leading cause of fatality and death for U.S. teens.  It is especially true with newly licensed drivers.  They are four times, believe it or not, more likely to get into a wreck than any other age group.  So, teenagers are deeply connected with their phones and you add on the risk of a new driver.  It kind of makes it more riskier than an adult driver.

Shaina Farfel:  What are the laws around distracted driving here in the state of Tennessee?

Purnima Unni:  Interestingly enough, believe it or not, in 2018, there were over 24,000 crashes involving a distracted driver right here in Tennessee.  So, we are very excited that Tennessee actually has a hands-free Tennessee law.  It had gone into effect on July 1, 2019.  So, the law does state that if you are over 18, then you are not supposed to hold a phone in your hand or have it anywhere close to your body, that you are not supposed to write or send a text message out.  You can't even reach for a cell phone.  You are allowed to use a GPS device, but it has to be mounted at all times, and of course, you can use ... like, hands-free devices are allowed, so, you know, earphones/ear buds.  Now, if you are a driver under 18 and you're newly licensed in that restricted phase or intermediate restricted phase, you are actually not even supposed to be on the phone at all.  That's just part of their graduated driver licensing law - no phones allowed at all.  So, that's something parents have to be kind of aware of and talk to their child about, and obviously, role modeling plays a huge role in all of this.

Shaina Farfel:  Sure, and just circling back, so, you had mentioned some of these already, but what are the hazards associated with distracted driving and why is it important to prevent it?

Purnima Unni:  Yeah.  So, when you look, or think about it, it's really the statistics are really shocking, and I pulled some numbers just so that, you know, our listeners are kind of aware because I think sometimes data speaks volumes.  So, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,000 people are killed by the distracted driving alone in 2017, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, nine people are killed and more than 1,000 injured daily ... DAILY as a result of distracted driving.  So, it goes without saying that distracted driving can have really devastating effects, from fatal injuries where, you know, you lose a loved one, or you actually can cause the death of a loved one, to you getting involved in a serious injury where it can affect your whole life.

Shaina Farfel:  It can be really devastating, and so that's why it is so important to talk about this today.  You know, a lot of parents out there might be wondering what they might be able to do to keep their children safe from distracted driving.

Purnima Unni:  That's a great question.  You know, I have one who is 18 and one who is 21, and I know this can be a really scary time for parents if you have a newly-licensed driver or even if you have one who has been riding on the road for a while.  So, we will always recommend - be a good role model.  You know, if you are out there with your child in the car, and that starts early on, put your seatbelts on and put your phones away.  The message can wait.  There is nothing more precious than you and your family that you are carrying around.  Make sure if you have a teen who is a new driver, that you are kind of aware of the Tennessee Graduated Driver Licensing Law.  There are several components to it as far as when they can drive, how many passengers they can drive, whether they can use their phone ... so, all good advice that you should be aware of as they are going through that phase.  There are a lot of good parent-teen driving agreements out right now, where you can kind of sit with your teen and lay out what is expected of them in that learning phase, and don't be afraid, you know, to actually follow up and enforce it if they don't follow a rule that they were supposed to.  Make sure you are able to enforce it, and if there is a punishment involved, there is a punishment involved, because that's how they are going to learn as they go on the roadways.  Encourage them, really, if they have a phone, to use the "do not disturb" option on their phone, because what happens is they are going to be tempted if they see that light flashing, or, you know, hear some message coming on.  If you put that "do not disturb" application on your phone, then they are not even going to hear it until they reach their destination.  So, you can reassure them that none of their messages are going to be lost, but it's just making sure that they are not on the phone while in the car.

Shaina Farfel:  Can you tell us a little bit about the Teen Driver Safety Program here at Vanderbilt or any other resources that you may be aware of that are available to parents and teens around middle Tennessee?

Purnima Unni:  Yeah.  So, we are very excited.  In 2011, we started our "Be in the Zone - Turn off your Phone" teen driver safety initiative, and we are ever so grateful to the Allstate Foundation and Ford Fund for actually supporting our program since 2011, believe it or not, and the idea behind that program is to really encourage or increase awareness among teens about distracted driving and safe driving.  So, it is kind of a unique hospital-school partnership.  So, what we do is we partner with schools in high-risk counties that we have seen in Tennessee.  We encourage them to send some of their youth into our hospital.  We run like a six-hour program with the teens on kind of all the different aspects of being involved in the crash, from the ED to PT to just hearing from an individual who has been impacted as a result of a motor vehicle crash, and then, these teens become our champions of change.  They go out into their schools and run a year-long anti-texting-while-driving campaign where they are kind of motivating positive change in their peers.  So, this year, for example, we have 14 high schools across 12 counties participating, and we have reached more than 101 schools and more than 100,000 students since we started the program in 2011.  So, definitely come to our website.  You can just go to Vanderbilt Children's Hospital/Injury Prevention and it will take you to our Teen Driver Safety page, and the page has other information as well on it so that parents can kind of start this conversation with their teen.

Shaina Farfel:  Yeah.  It sounds like a wonderful, novel program.

Purnima Unni:  Yeah, we've had a wonderful opportunity to do that and touch as many families as we can, and like we always say in our world, even if you can change one person's life, that's a huge deal for us.

Shaina Farfel:  Absolutely.  Well, thank you so much for sharing this valuable information.  I think we can all relate to these concerns and it's important for teenagers and adults alike to have an increased awareness and, you know, their own strategy for how to limit distractions while driving.  So, thank you.

Purnima Unni:  Thank you so much for having me.

Shaina Farfel:  Have a wonderful day.

Purnima Unni:  Thank you.

Shaina Farfel:  Thanks for listening.  If you have a story suggestion, you can use the "Contact Us" page on our website at