Healthy World, Healthy Nation, Healthy You

Driving to Distraction: Risks Associated with High School Students Who are Texting While Driving

Elizabeth Burgess Dowdell, PhD, RN, FAAN
Professor, Villanova University College of Nursing


elizabeth-dowdellElizabeth Burgess Dowdell, a Professor of Pediatric Nursing at Villanova University, has made major contributions quantifying the health risks facing vulnerable children and providing leadership to vital, compelling issues in child health.

Not only has she made innovative insights investigating infant abductions, writing policies for hospital safety of newborns, and studying children raised by grandparents, but she has been a pioneering nurse scientist identifying the interrelationships among various forms of electronic aggression, including “cyber-bullying” and “sexting” in addition to the new phenomena of “sleep texting.”

Dr. Dowdell incorporates nursing information into the larger pool of interdisciplinary research by updating the profile of high-risk youth and highlighting the significance of the interrelationships among physical, sexual, and emotional factors and electronic aggression when on the Internet.  Her research has led to new strategies for risk profiling and understanding the perilous behaviors of children and adolescents associated with the Internet, smart phones, and social media.

Her current Department of Justice grant advances the science of children’s risk behaviors by providing professionals with resources to assess risk, educate children and parents, and plan future intervention studies to minimize risk. Her program of research promotes Internet child safety across the lifespan thereby contributing to evidence-based practice outcomes.

Dr. Dowdell’s academic degrees include a BSN from Vanderbilt University, MS from Boston College, and PhD from University of Pennsylvania.


This show will address the following issues, challenges, stories, solutions

For many drivers, time in the car has become another opportunity to multi-task, to catch up on activities of daily living such as using a cell phone to answer or make calls or texts, to eat a meal, put on make-up, or read the paper while in traffic or at red lights.  Although, multitasking can be a useful strategy for getting things done, when it occurs behind the wheel of a car, it becomes distracted driving which can be dangerous to driver, passengers, as well as other vehicles.

Distracted driving is a behavior also established in adolescent drivers who report higher levels of being distracted by a cell phone (texting, calling, or talking) than adult drivers. Risk taking behaviors in an adolescent population is relative however, these same behaviors contribute to the mortality, morbidity, and cause of disability in this age group.

A study was developed to look at adolescents who text while driving and their self-reported participation in other health risk taking behaviors such as alcohol use, cigarette smoking, and drug use.  Findings suggest that high school students who report that they text while driving also participate in other risk taking behaviors with boys having higher numbers of participation when compared to girls. High school students’ who reported texting while driving, when compared to their not-texting while driving peers, were more likely to participate in additional health risk behaviors of drinking alcohol, drinking alcohol and driving, drug use, and bullying.

For many high school students texting while driving is related to other health risk behaviors that are often discussed in detail at school or in health promotion materials.  Adolescent safety is addressed in programs on alcohol awareness, the dangers of drinking, substance use, and safe driving.  One-on-one or in a group format these programs can get students talking and thinking about their own behaviors as well as experiences.  Specifically, encouraging high school drivers to think about their own driving habits and technology use (e.g., cell phone use while driving, estimation of number of calls and or texts received/sent, placement of the cell phone in the car, and if they answer the phone how – hands free, at stop sign, pulls over, etc.).  It is important to also remember that many high school students spend significant amounts of time in other people’s cars.  Adolescents are more likely than adults to be aware of the texting and driving habits of their friends.

In a nationwide survey 48 percent of all teens ages 12-17 years reported they have been in a car when the driver was texting, and 40 percent said they have been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put themselves or others in danger. Thinking about their own driving but also their experiences when driving with a friend or witnessing when in a friend’s car, as well as what they are seeing with their parents who are driving are critical pieces to help identify risk taking driving behaviors. Adolescents should be encouraged, as a passenger, to feel comfortable about saying something to a driver who is texting, whether peer or parent.

Texting while driving can be viewed within a broad profile of risk factors that incorporate the desire to take health-risks, peer influences, parental role modeling, and perception that “nothing bad will happen to me.” Recognition that risk behaviors tend to cluster supports including distracted driving and texting while driving into conversations with adolescent drivers in addition into programs that address health promotion and health risk reduction.  It is important to acknowledge that texting while driving in a high school population is not the cause of every motor vehicle crash, but the behavior is becoming more common every day with often tragic outcomes.  Safety for the teen driver, any passengers, and other drivers’ demands that the student driver recognize risky behavior(s) and have opportunities to change thereby increasing the survival of these teens.

3 Key Points:

  1. In the United States texting while driving is a growing trend among high school student drivers. Risk taking behaviors in this age group tend to cluster together and in a recent study texting while driving correlated with other risky behaviors such as drinking alcohol, drug use, and electronic bullying. Safety for these teen drivers as well as the general public includes recognizing the behavior(s) so that changes can be made.
  2. Texting while driving is a growing trend with adolescent drivers and as they age into young adulthood. It is a risk behavior that has the potential for injury, disability, and fatality.
  3. Talking to adolescent drivers about risk taking behaviors, behind the wheel or as a passenger, is a step towards identification of risk. Encouraging teens to reflect on their risk taking as well as when with others can empower them to change their own behaviors as well as influence others


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