The leading cause of death among American teens isn’t an illness – it’s traffic crashes, largely due to distracted driving, according to the National Department of Transportation.
“It is a big problem in this country,” said Chris Vitale, manager for injury prevention and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. “For the past two years, we’ve lost about 3,000 to crashes that have been attributed to distracted driving.”
The Allstate Foundation has awarded Children's a $35,000 grant for the FOCUS program, which is in its seventh year in Pittsburgh. FOCUS uses a simulator that features high-definition video and gaming technology that lets a teen “get behind the wheel” and lobs distractions at them.
“Anything that takes anyone’s mind or ears or eyes off the road is considered a distraction,” said Vitale, “it’s not just texting, it’s using a phone, eating or drinking, it can be passengers in the car.”
A quarter of teens respond to a text message once or more every time they drive. 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit that they have extended, multi-message text conversations while driving, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
The goal of FOCUS is to safely demonstrate how distractions can affect driving. Where graphic videos and public service announcements fall short, Vitale said simulators and graduated drivers licenses have proven more effective.
“Statistics have shown, over the past 10 years, there has been a decrease in the number of teens killed in motor vehicle crashes,” she said.
With reaching kids, Vitale said she hopes to empower them to also speak up to the adults in their lives who may also engage in distracted driving.
“Some of the kids will say they don’t text, but their parents do,” said Vitale, “and they say their parents are not as good at texting as they (teens) are – so it’s an even bigger problem.”
To that end, a teen summit in December will task participants with creating public service announcements to the adults in their lives, reminding them that driving while distracted isn’t a good idea at any age.
The Allstate Foundation also funds a grant competition to provide schools with money to continue their own safe driving programs for teens.