Kids are witnessing parents' dangerous driving habits, and phones are just the start of it

Hey, put down that phone while you’re driving!

We’re talking to you, Mom and Dad.

A new study by researchers from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing found that about half the parents of young children in a recent survey talked on their cellphones while driving their kids around, one in three read text messages, and one in seven used social media.

“An alarming number of parents and caregivers report engaging in cellphone use while driving in the presence of their 4- to 10-year-old children,” states the study article, published online Thursday by the Journal of Pediatrics.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, a not-insignificant percentage of parents who admitted to using their phones while behind the wheel also acknowledged not using seat belts themselves, not consistently using child-safety restraints with their kids, or driving while under the influence of alcohol.

“What we saw in our analysis is, some of the risky behaviors didn’t exist in isolation,” said lead author Catherine McDonald, an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Health at Penn Nursing.

The study was conducted via an online survey of 760 adults from 47 states. The participants had to be at least 18, be a parent or caregiver of a child between the ages of 4 and 10, and have driven their oldest child between those ages at least six times in the preceding three months.

Distracted driving is a public-health crisis in the United States, leading to about one in four motor vehicle accidents, according to the researchers.

The new study suggests that the parenting idiom “do as I say, not as I do” is in operation on our nation’s roadways.

“They are engaging in these behaviors while their children could be potentially watching,” said McDonald, also a senior fellow with CHOP’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention. “What we worry about is the modeling of unsafe driving behaviors and what that may mean for those young people as they become drivers later on.”

In the three months before they responded to the study, about 52 percent of the surveyed parents had talked on a hands-free phone while driving with a young child in the car, and 47 percent had done so with a handheld phone.

In addition, nearly 34 percent of the parents admitted to reading text messages while driving with children, and almost 27 percent sent text messages. Close to 14 percent used social media while driving with kids.

Cellphone use while driving among the participating parents was also significantly linked to drinking and driving. The risky parent drivers tended to fall in the higher-income categories.

The results suggest family doctors and pediatricians might want to look at parental driving habits when talking about children’s safety, the researchers said.

“When clinicians are discussing child passenger safety with families, they can use the opportunity to ask and educate about parental driving behaviors, such as seat-belt use and cellphone use while driving,” McDonald said. “This type of education is especially pivotal today, as in-vehicle technology is rapidly changing and there is increased – and seemingly constant – reliability on cellphones.”