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Driving Values: Using Behavioral Techniques to Reduce Texting While Driving

“Do you ever use your cell phone while driving?” a young student asked the teacher during homeroom. After a lecture about the dangers of texting and driving, the teacher was not prepared for this direct question. Rather than lie or seem hypocritical, she answered the question with a question, “How many of you have seen your parents texting while driving?” Every hand went up.

At home, a young man passes his driver’s test and with his license in hand asks, “Can I drive myself to the store?” What do you say about the cell usage? Turn it off? Put it in the trunk? What if you want your teen to have the cell phone in case of emergency? What guidance do you offer? Training? Warnings?

Every parent worries when their teenager gets their driver’s license and takes the car for the first time. We have been training them all their lives about crossing the street, not talking to strangers, and about the birds and the bees to keep them safe. Now, with a state-issued plastic card, we ourselves are giving them a license to operate a heavy piece of machinery amongst a mad world of road-raged drivers who, in many cases, never drive defensively.

Safe driving

A study conducted by the Department of Health Management and Policy concluded that, “Distracted driving is a growing public safety hazard. Specifically, the dramatic rise in texting volume since 2005 appeared to be contributing to an alarming rise in distracted driving fatalities.” Another study by the Highway Safety Research Center at UNC discovered that, “Most teens surveyed, reported having talked or read or sent a text message using a cell phone while driving.”

What can we do about this? First, we have to figure out why this is such an enticing behavior. There is a high probability that every driver who has a cell phone has been guilty of texting while driving at least once. So the primary problem with “training” is that mostly everyone knows cell phone use and driving are a big no-no. But if that is true, why do so many people still do it?

Just like behavior change in the workplace, the issue cannot be resolved by a lecture or with posted warnings. And it is not more training, or cards to remember what to remember (especially because you don’t want them glancing at safe guidelines while they’re driving). The solution resides in a Values System where adults and teenagers are engaged TOGETHER to ensure everyone is on the same page and talking regularly about what is important when it comes to expected driving behaviors, including cell phone usage.

Driver’s Education is an extremely important step in preparing a young driver to drive defensively, understand rules of the road, and it also gives them practice before hitting the highway. But every great Driver’s Ed instructor will agree that this is only the beginning. Parents must engage their young drivers to ensure they avoid unsafe behaviors that could cause a fender bender, a ticket, or worse.

But as parents, we lecture the kids about not using their cell phones when they drive. Then we call them on their cell phone while they’re driving. Or the teen will internally catalogue the hypocrisy when they see us using our cell phones when we drive. Then after our one-way lectures, we hand them the keys and bid farewell with our final words . . . “Drive Safe” . . . “Be Careful” . . . “Call me when you get there.”

We all know deep inside that those words are not as powerful as the simple freedoms they feel on that open highway or the joy of the thumping music that only sounds better when it’s louder. And worse are the peer distractions—teens riding along, teens calling, and teens texting. Unfortunately, peer approval leads to the most frequent cause of death to teenagers in North America.

Basic psychology states that any behavior is repeated based on the strength of consequences. Psychologists tell us that social consequences are often the most important factors influencing behavior (especially for teens). And digital technology has shifted the risky passing notes in class toward personalized messaging. And despite the rules that ban cell phone use in classrooms, kids are so skilled that they can type messages in their pocket and hit send with one hand while taking an Algebra test with the other. They know just when to look down at their friends’ responses before getting caught. Then we give them the keys when they are more skilled at texting than they are at following the correct distance and parallel parking.

So we as adults have inadvertently encouraged kids to learn how to multitask with texting. Have you ever tried to talk to a teenager who is in mid-text? If they’re not paying attention to you when you’re talking, imagine how much they’ll be focused on the road when their mind is on their texting!

This may seem impossible to deal with, but it is not hopeless. To understand how we can have better impact on addressing the texting and driving, we first need to understand why this need for texting is so powerful by using the traditional behavioral observation and feedback model. As noted by author and behavioral psychologist Terry McSween, “. . . consequences can either increase or decrease the behaviors they follow.” The most powerful consequences are those that happen sooner, not later; are more certain, and positive to the person committing the behavior. Apply this model to the behavior of “Texting While Driving”:

  • Consequences to “Texting While Driving” S/L C/U +/-
  • Cause a vehicle accident S U -
  • Receive a traffic citation S U -
  • Die because of an accident S/L U -
  • Get to see what your friend is writing to you/Peer Acceptance S C +

In our lectures about safe driving, we tend to focus our discussions on the negative accident, ticket, or death. Those could be “sooner” consequences (which, if they don’t die, they will certainly lose their driving privileges anyway—another negative). The primary issue is the certainty. Teenagers have a much stronger “it won’t happen to me” syndrome than most adults do. In fact, most teenagers already know that texting is unsafe. That’s why threats rarely work. The Soon, Certain, and Positive outcome of that peer interaction is more powerful than threats. Even worse, we don’t ride with them to see their behaviors (and if we do, they certainly won’t text in front of us).

One answer is a Driving Values system. To start off with, we need to attempt to match the power of Soon, Certain and Positive consequences of “Peer Acceptance” to even have a shot at changing the behavior. This provides the side benefit of having frequent conversations about what you and your teen value when it comes to driving behavior. This can be done one on one, but preferably, with the entire family.

  1. REMOVE DISTRACTIONS – Start off by turning off phones and televisions to stay focused.
  2. SET THE STAGE – Explain that this is a friendly, but serious talk with your teen about driving and how important they are to you. Be clear that this is not about Driver’s Ed or a test.
  3. ENGAGE EVERYONE – Give each person a piece of paper and a pen or pencil (but keep it as informal as possible).
  4. LIST VALUED BEHAVIORS – Have each person list 10 behaviors that are the most valued to safe driving (i.e. no cell phone use, no loud music, eyes on the road, etc.).
  5. COMPARE – Have everyone discuss their #1 behavior and explain why. Do your best to keep your teens engaged. Give them credit for what they come up with. Continue until you have ten behaviors.
  6. CONSOLIDATE – Either by vote or agreement, create the top ten behaviors on another sheet and have everyone look over it.
  7. AGREEMENT – Get everyone to agree. Some of you may want to go as far as having everyone sign it. That’s fine, but it’s more important that the teen had as much input and say in the development of the list as the parents did.
  8. POST – Place copies of this list in common areas, such as on the refrigerator, near the key storage, even near the front door.
  9. DISCUSS – Pick a time every day to have some sort of talk about driving. Did you see someone else texting and driving? Did you avoid using your phone? What distractions did you deal with? Do a Self-Observation and grade yourself on how you did with the expected values. Stay positive!
  10. DO A DRIVING OBSERVATION – Using the Values Sheet you and your teen created, simply watch the person drive. They may tell you that you’re making them nervous, so let them observe you too. Do this regularly.

This process requires commitment and consistency. But it is better than “Be Careful” or waiting until the police get involved to have a discussion. And avoid using this system for punishment. Remember, punishment is extreme and negative. It should be used only as a last resort. It’s good to let your teen know that punishment is a possibility, but punishment should be reserved for serious or willful violations. I promise you, the first time your teen admits they looked at their phone while driving and you punish them for it, that’s the end of any open discussion, which leads us to how far these discussions can take you.

When using the Driving Values system, you will find yourself talking about what you value so often; everyone will be looking out for each other. One family bounced the cell phone idea around and went from “cell phone off” to “cell phone in trunk”. But then more discussion identified the cell phone’s usefulness. What if you are in a car accident and need to make a call? If the cell phone is in the trunk or sitting on the seat, it could be thrown out of reach. What if there is a carjacking? The carjacker will certainly not let you take your phone. So the new expected behavior is, “phone in pocket, turned off until car is parked.”

Will this system prevent every teen from texting and driving? Probably not every single time. However, the alternative is waiting until something bad happens. Regular discussions can even lead to discussions about other things you value with all members of the family. What is your position on bullying? What kind of things can your kids say to you where they do not fear reprisal? Try the Driving Values system and share success stories of how the improved communication had a positive impact on your family.


McSween T, McSween T. Value-based safety process [electronic resource]: improving your safety culture with behavior-based safety/Terry E. McSween [e-book]. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Interscience, c2003.

O’Brien N, Goodwin A, Foss R. Talking and texting among teenage drivers: a glass half empty or half full? Traffic Injury Prevention [serial online]. December 2010;11(6):549-554.

Wilson, F., & Stimpson, J. (2010). Trends in fatalities from distracted driving in the United States, 1999 to 2008. American Journal of Public Health, 100(11), 2213-2219. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.187179