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Ask Dan Heath: The Scared Straight Approach to Teens, Texting, and Driving


Dear Dan,

My daughter turned 16 about six months ago, so naturally I am terrified of her getting in a wreck. To make matters worse, I rode with her recently and she started texting while she was driving! I gave her an earful but I could tell she thought I was just being uptight. Any advice on how to pound into her brain how dangerous it is to text & drive?

- Danger on Board

Dear Danger, first, let's acknowledge the hard part here: You're never really going to know whether your daughter is listening to you or not. You'll never know for sure if she's texting and driving, unless you've got a hidden camera embedded in her car—and if you do, please post the link to the hidden-car-camera so that thousands of other parents can avail themselves of it.

Because of this "enforcement problem," giving your daughter an earful is probably not going to help. No, this is a problem that we'll have to solve with persuasion rather than discipline. But that's no easy matter, because as the parent of a teenager, you have no credibility. In fact, your daughter's friends are her most credible source, and they're the people texting back to her.

So how can you persuade her? Here's one strategy: Ask her whether she believes that drinking while driving is dangerous. She'll say yes, of course. (If she says no, swap her car for a bicycle.) Point out to her that research shows that texting and driving is more dangerous than drinking and driving. Maybe that will give her a little shock. Then again, research may not be enough to overcome the peer-pressure effect.

Imagine that you could track down the mother of a child who was killed by a texting driver, and that she was willing to call your daughter and tell the story. Your daughter would never text again. Granted, this is probably not feasible, but notice the underlying strategy: To get your daughter to feel something. There may be less dramatic ways to achieve the same goal. For instance, try appealing to her conscience. Tell her that it's not just her you're worried about—ask her how she'd feel if she got distracted by texting just long enough to overlook the little girl who was crossing the street. (This isn't some kind of melodramatic exaggeration, by the way—a study of long-haul truckers, the best drivers out there, showed that their collision risk went up by 23x when they were texting.)

A final possibility: get her to see for herself how dangerous it is. The New York Times built a cool "texting & driving" simulator/game and I found it pretty convincing. Maybe if she experiences for herself the huge decreases in reaction time that come with T&D, the truth will sink in.

And if none of these ideas work with your daughter, you have 3 "nuclear" options: Take away her car. Take away her phone. Or wait a few more years until you're credible again.


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