How to Keep Teens Off Cell Phones While Driving

Published on in CHOP News

June 30, 2010 — New research from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and State Farm® links teens’ positive and negative beliefs about not using a cell phone while driving with their likelihood to engage in cell phone use behind the wheel. The findings, based on the nationally-representative National Young Driver Survey (NYDS) of more than 5,500 teenagers, are published today in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Accident Analysis and Prevention.

Most effective approach — focus on positive effects of staying off phone while driving

This research indicates that adults should emphasize with teens the positive effects of staying off the phone while driving, rather than highlight potential negative consequences of cell phone use while driving.

Teens in the study were asked to share the positive and negative effects of refraining from cell phone use while driving. When asked, teens that seldom use cell phones while driving tended to cite positive motivators. Teens that frequently use cell phones while driving tended to refer most to the drawbacks of not using a cell phone while driving. In comparing the two groups, the findings showed that positive messages outweighed negative messages in breaking through with teens on cell phone practices while driving.

“When it comes to predicting their frequency of cell phone use while driving, the positive beliefs teens have about refraining from this behavior are more powerful than their negative beliefs,” says Jessica Hafetz, PhD, the study’s lead author. “More specifically, teens also attached more weight to safety-related beliefs over those that are purely social. For instance, the positive belief of paying attention to their driving was more important than the negative beliefs of seeming less social and missing out on gossip or important news.”

More specifically, the study found teens who said they do not frequently use a cell phone behind the wheel believe the benefits of putting away their phone while driving outweigh any drawbacks. These teens cited benefits including:

  • Being able to pay better attention to their driving
  • Being less likely to have a crash
  • Following the law

Conversely, teens who said they frequently do engage in cell phone use while driving believe the drawbacks of refraining from cell phone use while driving outweigh the benefits. The drawbacks cited included:

  • Getting lost or forgetting something
  • Not being able to let others know where they are or when they’ll arrive
  • Not having their parents be able to reach them

The authors consider these to be valid safety concerns for which there are alternatives.

How to talk to your teen driver about cell phone use

Based on these findings, CHOP and State Farm offer practical advice for parents and educators when talking with teens about cell phone use. The authors say that parents should acknowledge that teens want to have a cell phone in the car in case of an emergency, but should also convey a clear message that their teens are never to use a cell phone while driving.

“To prevent crashes and save lives, we need to truly connect with today’s teens,” says Susan Hood, Claims Vice President at State Farm. “That means empowering teens to do the right thing by giving them viable alternatives to talking or texting while driving. Teens don’t respond well to messages and restrictions that appear punitive or controlling or that single teens out as a group.”

Positive practices for cell phone use in the car (but not while driving) include:

  • Complete any call or text before starting the car
  • Know directions before turning the ignition key rather than relying on a phone call or GPS to show the way
  • Check in with friends or parents only after you arrive
  • Pull over to a safe place for urgent calls or have a responsible passenger answer the phone

“This study adds to the growing body of scientific literature that illustrates the importance of basing public health messaging for teens on strengthening their existing safety beliefs as opposed to using ‘scare tactics’ to change their behavior,” says Dr. Hafetz. “We’re always telling teens about the negative consequences of certain behaviors. Let’s instead flip it around and focus on the positive things that can happen when they do the right thing.”

Supporting compliance for state laws banning cell phone use while driving

The study’s authors point to federal statistics showing that a driver’s crash risk is four times higher when the driver uses a cell phone, whether or not it’s hands-free. Due to these findings, many states have passed or proposed laws banning the use of cell phones and texting while driving.

“These laws may achieve greater compliance if supported by public awareness campaigns that emphasize what people have to gain from not using their cell phones while driving,” says Dr. Hafetz.

More information

For more information about this study, to view a podcast, or to download educational materials, visit