Why Waze & music apps are distracting driving teens, while teens think they are not distracting

appandrivingAlthough teens say they think using apps while driving is dangerous, tests show that they truly think that it is not distracting.

In many cases, teens’ reported actions didn’t match with what they implicitly felt. In the explicit, self-reporting survey, almost all teens acknowledge app usage as a danger behind the wheel (95 percent). However, when presented with a visual of an app notification appearing on a smartphone during implicit association testing, it was revealed that approximately 80 percent of teens fundamentally view app use while driving as “not distracting.”

“This research identifies teens’ underlying beliefs about key driving habits, providing insight into what teens really believe,” said Dr. Gene Beresin, senior advisor on adolescent psychiatry with SADD and Executive Director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Teens as a whole are saying all the right things, but implicitly believe that using their phone while driving is safe and not a stressor or distraction behind the wheel.”

Teens may consider navigation and music apps as “utilities,” diluting the perception of the dangers related to their use while driving. While 41 percent explicitly state that using navigation apps while driving is dangerous or distracting, 58 percent report using them on the road. More teens (64 percent) say that using music apps while driving is dangerous or distracting, but nearly half (46 percent) still admit to using them in the car. 

While navigation and music apps may seem harmless, how teens interact with them can be distracting. Turning on music apps, changing a destination, actively checking directions and flipping through a playlist are all examples of potentially dangerous app usage behind the wheel.  Implicit association testing also indicates that teens believe checking a notification or opening an app is less dangerous and distracting than texting while driving.

“Phone use while driving is one of the most concerning behaviors by inexperienced teen drivers. Any behavior that takes your eyes and focus off the road, even for mere seconds, can impair your ability to react to hazards and other vehicles,” said Dr. William Horrey, Ph.D., principal research scientist at the Liberty Mutual Insurance Research Institute for Safety. “It’s not the apps themselves that are dangerous, but how we, and our teens, interact with them while behind the wheel.”

Conversations and Tips to Help Parents Worry Less

When it comes to changing teens’ behavior on the road, it’s essential for parents to realize the important role that they play. Understanding teens’ unconscious bias can also help to change their habits and deep held beliefs on what is safe vs. dangerous behavior. Keeping these conversations open and honest has the ability to encourage responsible driving among today’s teens. Horrey and Beresin offer the following tips to help parents of teen drivers:

  • Hide the phone! 73 percent of teens admit to having their phones nearby while driving alone. Ask teens to keep their phones out of reach and on silent so they’re less tempted to check incoming app notifications and more likely to keep their eyes on the road.
  • Map it out: 42 percent of teens say they text while driving to get directions or find out how to get somewhere. Teach teens to program their navigation apps before getting behind the wheel or pull over to double check directions.
  • Set Expectations: Liberty Mutual Insurance and SADD encourage parents and teens to use the Teen Driving Contract as a conversation starter and discussion guide.

Teens have been inundated with messages about the dangers of texting while driving over the past several years—and while this message is still vitally important, texting is not the only danger popping up on their smartphones. According to new research conducted by Liberty Mutual Insurance and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), while 27 percent of teens today still report texting and driving, a bigger concern is that two out of three teens (68 percent) admit to using apps while driving. In fact, when asked to rank the driving behaviors they perceived to be most dangerous, looking at or posting to social media apps ranked much lower as compared to texting and driving or driving under the influence of alcohol, for example.

To complement the more traditional, quantitative research, the study also incorporated implicit association testing (IAT), which has been used for the past 20 years to measure unconscious bias. This method provided teens with a range of different visual driving scenarios such as texting, using various apps and receiving phone calls along with a set of key words. The speed with which teens associated these scenarios with words such as “distracting,” “safe,” and “fun,” among others, was then used to reveal their more automatic, gut-level reactions and feelings concerning distracted and dangerous driving behaviors. The unconscious biases identified in the IAT, coupled with the findings teens reported in the survey, reveal gaps in what teens believe versus what they say and how they act.