Beyond Texting: What Teens Really Do Behind the Wheel

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From changing clothes to putting on makeup, teenagers are engaging in a slew of surprising distractions while driving. (Photo: Getty Images/Andersen Ross)

Eating, and drinking, and grooming, oh my. Distracted teen drivers are doing a whole lot more than texting behind the wheel. More than a quarter of teens admit that they’ll occasionally change clothes and shoes while driving in a study recently published in the Journal of Transportation Safety and Security.

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And those 27 percent of kids aren’t the only ones multi-tasking—nor are their Superman-style outfit switches the worst of what researchers say is drawing drivers’ focus off of the road. Out of the more than 1,000 teens studied by David Hurwitz, assistant professor of transportation engineering at Oregon State University, some say they’ll also change contact lenses and put on makeup while driving.  (The percent of teens reporting that they text while driving came in lower than in past polls, at 40 percent).

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The most shocking confession? “The research team was surprised to find that students self-reported that they work on homework while driving,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. “But my most interesting observation of distracted driving was a driver playing guitar while in traffic on a highway.”

Sounds funny, but distracted driving has serious consequences. Nearly 3,000 teens die each year, and another 280,000 are treated at hospitals after vehicle crashes, per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports CBS News. Among teens, 11 percent of those fatal wrecks are caused by distracted driving.

“Previous research has demonstrated that any secondary task that results in glances away from the road for a duration of more than about 2 seconds has a dramatic effect on crash risk,” says Hurwitz, whose team also enlisted the surveyed teens in a drivers’ ed class.

During that roughly half-hour class, researchers tested the teens on deceptively difficult multitasking, such as writing down numbers while talking on the phone. “This was just a scenario to demonstrate that having a distraction can really prevent you from doing basic tasks,” Hurwitz tells NPR. After the session, NPR reports that the study found “students were slightly better at recognizing the risks of multitasking behind the wheel.” Older teenagers got the message more than their younger cohorts, he tells Yahoo Parenting: “They responded more positively.”

So while it seems promising that teaching teens the danger of divided attention can make a difference, parents need to do their part too. “One thing that we should all be more cognizant of is that we are role models not just for our children, but for every passenger in our vehicle,” says Hurwitz. “Exhibiting good behaviors for passengers in our vehicles is something that each of us can do to promote safe driving.”

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