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Distracted Driving Laws Make a Difference in Rates of Adolescent Fatal Motor Vehicle Crashes :

May 25, 2020

To decrease the risk of motor vehicle crashes (MVCs), some states have passed laws to reduce drivers’ use of cell phones.

Cell phones are ubiquitous. Sadly, smart phones have are a major cause of motor vehicle crashes, especially in teenagers (10.1001/jama.2018.6566) as they become distracted texting someone or using it for selections of video or audio entertainment, takes their eye off the road or hands off the steering wheel. To decrease the risk of motor vehicle crashes (MVCs), some states have passed laws to reduce drivers’ use of cell phones. These laws range from primary enforcement (i.e. driver can be stopped simply for being seen texting while driving), secondary enforcement (ie, stopping a driver for texting if caught for another violation such as speeding), to more universal enforcement, such as laws that prohibit the use of cell phones for all drivers or at those that recently got their license.

How effective are these laws for adolescent drivers in reducing rates of fatal MVCs? To answer that question, Flaherty et al (10.1542/peds.2019-3621) evaluated fatal MVCs involving over 38,000 US teen drivers and passengers between 2007 and 2017 using the national Fatality Analysis Reporting System. The authors compared rates of fatalities by the various types and strengths of distracted driving laws across states. The good news is that these laws work to reduce MVC fatality rates. Which laws work better than others? As you might expect, those that ban texting or the use of handheld phones were the most effective. 

The sad news is that despite these laws, MVC fatalities in teens continue to occur. Why is this and what else can we be doing beside advocate for stricter distracted driving? To answer these questions, we asked Drs. Catherine McDonald and Kit Delgado from the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Mark Zonfrillo from Brown University to weigh in with an accompanying commentary (10.1542/peds.2020-0419). These commentary authors not only herald the important findings in this study but point out other methods to reduce use of cell phones when driving. These range from phone settings that do not allow telephone usage while driving in the car, in-vehicle technologies that allow voice activated system for managing calls, music, and seeking directions, and more. If you want to know what else you can be doing to reduce the rates of MVCs in your community for not just teens but all drivers, don’t distract yourself from reading this study and commentary, so you can advocate to your patients, your community and state for ways to avoid preventable MVCs and reduce the fatality rate.

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