Monday, December 24, 2012

Distracted Driving: The Plight of Teenagers and Texting

Distracted driving has become a serious issue in this country; vehicular accidents can easily occur when drivers are doing something other than focusing on driving. With the rapidly rising popularity of cellular phones, their use in the car has increased as well. Talking on the phone while driving is problematic, however, texting while driving is even more problematic as that requires the driver to use his or her fingers while driving, as opposed to simply holding the phone to his or her ear. In 2010, 2.052 trillion text messages were sent and received by cellular phone users (1). Texting has been the cause of many injuries and fatalities due to vehicular accidents.
            Teenagers communicate on their smart phones mostly by texting, and the rate of texting is highest amongst teenagers. Further, the rate of texting while in a vehicle is also highest amongst teenagers. Drivers aged 16 to 24 were most likely to use a handheld electronic device as was reported in a 2008 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report (2). In a study using college students, 91% of participants reported texting while driving (3). Young drivers are new drivers and accordingly inexperienced and more likely to cause vehicular accidents, especially if they are distracted while driving. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults (4). Thus the risk of vehicular accidents caused by distraction is greatest amongst teenagers. A Florida study on 16 – 24 year old drivers found that 87.2% stated that they use cellular phones while driving and 70.4% use hand-held phones (5). The largest proportion of distracted drivers is under the age of 20; 11% of fatal crashes involving drivers in this age group were distracted (6). Action should be taken to curb distracted driving as a whole, with a special focus on texting and driving, especially among teenagers.
            There are several existing public and private campaigns that aim not only to educate drivers about distracted driving but also to decrease its pervasiveness. Chief among these campaigns is, the Federal government’s official website for distracted driving. The website includes educational information, ways to become involved, and things to do to help keep American roads safe. The website seems to do a good job of compiling and showcasing information about distracted driving, however, there are changes that could be made to improve certain aspects of the website geared towards teenagers to help them comply with the laws that govern cellular phone use while driving.
The website is designed to serve parents, teens, educators, and employers, and it is thus heavy with statistics and scientific information. On its main menu, it offers options to peruse categories such as statistics, research, and state laws. Teenagers have become accustomed to receiving information in short (and often entertaining) bursts and at a fast pace. Those teenagers who find their way to would likely become bored with the presented material, losing focus, and consequently disengaging. The website does have a section with videos, something younger individuals are more likely to view. There is also a section titled “Glee Campaign” (7) which describes a partnership with the television show Glee. Glee is very popular with teenaged viewers. Aside from a distracted driving PSA video, this section of the website contains mostly additional statistics. There are web banners and infographics, but they are comprised of quotes such as “A texting driver is 23 times more likely to get into a crash than a non-texting driver” (7). The message -- which signifies someone yelling as it is all capitalized -- is very direct, but it borders on abrasive and may only incite fear in its readers. There is nothing in the Glee section showing cast members of the program. This is a missed opportunity to use celebrities as spokespeople to convey messages about distracted driving. It has been demonstrated that the success of changing the behavior of groups is tied to the behavioral model used, and that adding or changing the use of a model can improve outcomes. 

Critique 1: Eliciting Psychological Reactance
            The Psychological Reactance Theory, developed by Sharon Brehm, explains what happens when there is a perceived loss of control due to being told what one can or cannot do. As a rule, people like to feel in control and perceived loss of control can create serious effects. Control is a drive like hunger and thirst, and being in control lights up the pleasure centers in the brain. These same pleasure centers also light up when people feed their addictions. Humans are thus biologically programmed to do the opposite of what they were told not to do in order to regain control.
Many public health and safety campaigns make the mistake of triggering reactance by telling the population what they should be doing. In general, teenagers do not like being told what to do, and greatly desire their freedom. The teenage years are spent working on gaining independence from parents and other authority figures. uses slogans such as “Stop the Texts, Stop the Wrecks” (8) in an attempt to reduce teens’ combining texting with driving. Therefore, telling teenagers to stop texting (because it is unsafe) creates a greater desire for them to do so, over and above their simple desire to communicate.
Further, in a posted message, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood states that, “There's one message we hope everyone receives loud and clear: the safest way to get from one place to another is to hang up and drive. Powering down your cell phone when you're behind the wheel can save lives - maybe even your own” (9). These messages, while certainly valid, incite reactance because they do nothing other than tell young people to stop texting and driving. Additionally, studies have shown that the more explicit the message, the more reactance it will evoke (10). The Transportation Department’s messages are extremely explicit; consequently, the level of reactance in teens is high. Ultimately, the messaging backfires on its goal and may actually encourage texting. The key to reducing reactance is the frame used to convey the message; the frame should appeal to and include the audiences’ core values. A negative frame, often used in public health, is not as successful as positive frames used in marketing and advertising.  

Critique 2: The Weakness of the Use of the Health Belief Model
            The Health Belief Model, a traditional theory developed to predict health-related behaviors (11), states that behavioral decisions are made at the individual level, weighing perceived costs and benefits. The individual incorporates perceived susceptibility and severity into the perceived benefits. While the Health Belief Model is often used in public health, it does not do a good job of addressing the necessity to change behavior prevalent in epidemics (and distracted driving is becoming epidemic) because of its underlying assumption that people behave rationally. The model also assumes that once people make a decision to change their behavior, that change will take place, making no distinction between theory and practice. This is not the case because human decision-making typically involves irrational behavior (12). Traditional behavioral models were developed in the 1960s, and were effective for one-time health-related decisions such as immunization, but have been ineffective regarding addiction and long-term changes (13). Texting has become an addiction, especially for young adults.
Teenagers may be concerned about vehicular accidents and fatalities but simply inundating them with statistics and the consequences of texting and driving does not necessarily mean they will act differently the next time they receive a text message while operating a vehicle. Assuming teenagers will change their distracted driving behavior because they have the knowledge of its dangers is similar to assuming teens will stop or (better yet) never start smoking. Adolescents’ decision-making regarding smoking is based on emotions not rational thinking (14). Teens have always participated in risky behavior and simply providing them with a plethora of information regarding the risks will, unfortunately, be ineffective in accomplishing the goal of behavioral change.
            The Health Belief Model uses the assumption that behavior is changed on an individual level. However, many teenagers are socially oriented, wanting to spend all of their time with their friends. Teenagers adopt ways of dressing, speaking, and behaving by copying each other, especially if a behavior is perceived as cool. does make the attempt to address teens on a group level (rather than simply as individuals) by offering information for organizing school presentations and hosting other distracted driving events. However, downloadable information and posters to be used during these events include negative and scary messages, and more statistics.  
            Another assumption that is made by using the Health Behavior Model is that teenagers will weigh the costs and benefits of abstaining from texting and driving. Again, this is a flawed approach; if teenagers weighed the benefits of discontinuing risky behavior we would no longer have adolescent smoking, drinking, engaging in sexual activity, and the ensuing unplanned pregnancies. Unfortunately, using the Health Belief Model does not address the need to account for teenagers’ persistent irrational and group-influenced decision making.   

Critique 3: Lack of Celebrity Peers and Role Models
   includes, among many other things, videos, which have become very popular especially with younger viewers. As the cliché states, “a picture is worth a thousand words” (15). Videos are far more user-friendly and easier to grasp than reading text. The majority of these videos are tragic and heart-breaking stories about lives lost to distracted drivers. Family members and friends describe the victims and also talk about how their lives were sadly taken. The videos include victims of all ages, races, and geographical locations. There is also a range of ages among the friends and family members speaking in the videos. There are many parents speaking about the loss of a son or daughter. Teenagers do speak about the loss of a friend or family member, however while they may be similar to the target audience in age, they are not familiar to their audience.  
            There are few other images of people on the website. Of these, approximately 75% are of government or law enforcement personnel. For example, there is a large image of the Secretary of Transportation on his message page. There is also an image of the Secretary shaking the hands of law enforcement agents at an event. A third image shows the Secretary speaking from a podium with officials standing behind him on the stage. It is clear that these images are present to not only identify the Secretary, but also show the department’s activities, however additional opportunistic images have been omitted. An image showing the Secretary at an anti-distracted driving event for teens, interacting with them, would have been a great choice to add to the image library.
            In addition to the lack of celebrities and role models on the website, the images of other teens involved in activities they enjoy are also lacking. The main menu of the website includes a section specifically for teens, but there are no fun group images showing teens at an event in this section. It is clear that the topic of distracted driving accidents and fatalities is heavy, serious, and no laughing matter, but inundating teenagers with that kind of atmosphere will not be effective. Websites such as and, both anti-youth smoking movements, have images and videos throughout the website showcasing smiling and engaged teens at events. These menu categories on the websites include games, sports, music, merchandise, and art. These are concepts that interest teens, unlike facts and statistics, although those are also included on these websites. One image on the’s sports section shows teens on the beach at a surfing event in Hawaii. The caption reads “(T)ruth ripping it up. We’re hanging loose and taking in the Vans Triple Crown event in Hawaii” (16). By incorporating videos of things teenagers love on their website, sporting activities for example, the campaign is able to find a way to get teens to come back to the website. Adolescent viewers will return to the site to see if videos and images of additional sporting events are posted. 
            As previously mentioned, the Department of Transportation has partnered with Glee and lists information regarding this collaboration on This is another missed opportunity as there are no images or videos of the cast members. The PSA in this section calls itself the “Glee Distracted Driving PSA” (7) but other than the Glee logo in the bottom right-hand corner of the video, there is only one other mention of Glee on the webpage. A brief paragraph describing the campaign states “Thanks to the cast of Glee for their continued efforts to raise awareness about this issue” (7). Based on what is listed on the website, the particulars of the affiliation with the television program feel sparse. 

Additional Features on Distracted.Gov Could Increase Teen Compliance
            The website is put together well and offers an abundance of information geared toward distracted driving education and ways to reduce its prevalence and consequences. However, additions or improvements can be made to the website so that it may work better in interesting teenagers. Appealing to teenagers’ core beliefs of freedom and independence, affecting their predictably irrational behaviors, and attracting them with their idols are all ways that the campaign can improve its efficacy. Capturing teenagers’ interest and engaging them in the discussion of the dangers of texting and driving is an important step in increasing teens’ use of and their connection to distracted driving prevention.  
            The website should revise its teen-oriented section by framing it to appeal to their core beliefs of freedom and independence. Videos, games, and images attractive to teenagers should be used, similar to the design of the website of (17). is a Massachusetts based movement working to decrease youth smoking. The website is fun, playful, and captivating to young adults. There are contests, challenges, and fun activities for teens to become involved.   

Modification 1: Freedom and Independence, Not Safety and Health
            Appealing to teenagers’ core beliefs will reduce the risk that psychological reactance is in part a cause of their continued texting while driving (18). Freedom and independence, not safety and health, are core beliefs of teenagers. The site should explain to teenagers that technology has taken away their freedom. All of the messages they send electronically and post online can be tracked. Nothing is ever deleted when one presses the delete button. Overuse of technology also takes away from face to face time that could be spent with friends and participating in fun activities. If the question is posed to teens, it is likely they would prefer to be at the mall with their friends rather than sitting alone in a room texting. We are also losing the freedom to not be inundated with messages, advertisements, and electronic jargon. Teens have so many connections on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which cause them to be constantly overwhelmed by unnecessary notifications and communications. By producing messages that convey the potential loss of freedom caused by technology, youths may view texting and driving as the nemesis not the desire. Non-reactance messages need to be implicit as opposed to explicit. Conveying the ideas in a way that is subtle will be more effective than bombarding them with direct messages.
            The key to avoiding reactance is in how the issue is framed. Frames that work well appeal to the core values and beliefs of its audience (19). The truth campaign, which aims to stop youth smoking, changed its frame by replacing health with freedom and rebelling against tobacco companies. On the main page of its website, it states, “Heck, we love everybody. Our philosophy isn't antismoker or pro-smoker. It's not even about smoking. It's about the tobacco industry manipulating their products…” (16). This message is not a direct fear-inciting one that attempts to scare people into changing behaviors. It redirects blame from being placed on the smoker to the tobacco companies. Distracted driving campaigns should change the theme of their messages; blame should not be placed on young drivers texting, but on technology for taking control of our lives. Teenagers will respond to a theme of regaining control of their lives, as it stands for the freedom and independence they crave.

Modification 2: Decisions Are Not Made Rationally or Independently
            Alternative behavioral theories, unlike traditional theories, address the fact that people behave irrationally in their decision-making regarding health issues. Fundamentally, alternative models address groups rather than individuals. Two of the underlying premises of alternative models are: that a group dynamic exists and thus behavior should be predicted at the group level; and, behavior is dynamic and unplanned. Further, traditional models focus on changing attitudes first and behavior second. Alternative models have been more successful by focusing on changing behavior first and assuming that a change in attitude will follow. Based on these fundamental themes, alternative theories could be more effective in capturing the attention of teenagers and subsequently, reducing their distracted driving.
            Advertising Theory takes these themes into account and understands that change takes place on a group level and also that behavior is dynamic. The original Florida truth campaign (different from the website, an anti-smoking campaign geared toward teens, used these concepts to produce successful outcomes (20). Advertising Theory promises to fulfill the viewer’s deepest aspirations and supports this promise with emotionally provoking images, stories, and music.  The promise and its supporting themes are tied together by the core values of the target audience. Tobacco control advertisements have used Advertising Theory; one ad shows tobacco executives around a table laughing and makes no mention of health. The message is that smokers are being manipulated by the industry and will regain their control (an aspiration of teens) if they stop smoking. should use Advertising Theory as a basis for its website or at the very least, for the teen-oriented pages. For example, videos, posters, and brochures should be designed to appeal to teens’ desire for freedom and independence and their desire to be with their friends. The promise of the message is that teens will feel like a part of the movement to stop distracted driving; they will feel like they belong to the group. The website’s features should be branded in a way that engages the teens and provides uniformity throughout all of the material. As a group, teens will feel empowered to make the decision to stop texting and driving.

Modification 3: Familiar Messengers
            According to the principles of Communications Theory, in order for a message to be persuasive, the person chosen to deliver the message should be likable, familiar, and similar (21). For this reason, familiar speakers such as teen celebrities and iconic role models such as famous athletes should be used in videos to speak to the American teenagers. Advertising Theory uses this tactic. Many successful companies use icons as spokespeople in their advertisements; Gatorade is using Peyton Manning to endorse their products, while CoverGirl uses Taylor Swift. Teenagers look up to the iconic celebrities they follow, trying to emulate them. These famous personalities are revered by many in our society, especially impressionable adolescents.
Teenagers look up to and listen to similarly-aged celebrities and iconic role models such as famous athletes (22). should add video advertisements with these icons as spokespeople. In these ads, celebrities will explain how they do not use their cellular phones while driving. The celebrities will also explain how they tell distracted drivers to stop using their phones, when they are the passengers. Teenagers viewing these commercials will more highly value the messages when they are delivered by similar and familiar individuals. For example, a compilation commercial modeled on Rock the Vote could be used (23). Rock the Vote is a movement that aims to engage youth in political awareness and build involvement. It has registered more than 5 million young people to vote (24). Rock the Vote produced ad spots that showcased approximately 15 celebrities per advertisement, such as Miley Cyrus, Miranda Cosgrove, and cast members from Modern Family to encourage political engagement.
In the proposed distracted driving prevention advertisements, celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and members of the band One Direction would speak directly into the camera, each for a few seconds. They would all deliver similar messages, such as “ I always leave my phone on the back seat and wait until I get home to text my BFF back”. Additionally, the partnership with Glee should be expanded. The cast of Glee should also have a video with short spots of each of them explaining to camera that they do not drive distracted. Images of the cast members should be posted on the webpage promoting non-distracted driving in the aforementioned ways of gaining control and freedom by putting aside their smart phones.   

            Usage of cellular phones will likely only increase as technology becomes an even greater part of our lives, and it becomes even more of a social norm to use electronic gadgets throughout all activities and at all times of day (25). With our increasingly busy lives, the use of a phone in a vehicle may always be an enticing prospect. Many individuals attempt to multi-task by returning texts and phone calls while commuting to work or for errands. Teenagers, used to using their phones incessantly, will likely be among the drivers that reach for their phones out of instinct. It may take many years for a significant decrease in distracted driving to be visible. For this reason, it is imperative to ensure that all audiences are targeted appropriately and effectively in order to eliminate the ubiquity of distracted driving.


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