Teen Drivers' Perceptions of Inattention and Cell Phone Use While Driving

Traffic Inj Prev. 2015;16 Suppl 2(0):S52-8. doi: 10.1080/15389588.2015.1062886.


Objective: Inattention to the roadway, including cell phone use while driving (cell phone calls, sending and reading texts, mobile app use, and Internet use), is a critical problem for teen drivers and increases risk for crashes. Effective behavioral interventions for teens are needed in order to decrease teen driver inattention related to cell phone use while driving. However, teens' perceptions of mobile device use while driving is a necessary component for theoretically driven behavior change interventions. The purpose of this study was to describe teen drivers' perceptions of cell phone use while driving in order to inform future interventions to reduce risky driving.

Methods: We conducted 7 focus groups with a total of 30 teen drivers, ages 16-18, licensed for ≤ 1 year in Pennsylvania. The focus group interview guide and analysis were based on the Theory of Planned Behavior, identifying the attitudes, perceived behavioral control, and norms about inattention to the roadway. Directed descriptive content analysis was used to analyze the focus group interviews. All focus groups were coded by 2 research team members and discrepancies were reconciled. Themes were developed based on the data.

Results: Teens had a mean age of 17.39 (SD = 0.52), mean length of licensure of 173.7 days (SD = 109.2; range 4-364), were 50% male and predominately white (90%) and non-Hispanic (97%). From the focus group data, 3 major themes emerged: (1) Recognizing the danger but still engaging; (2) Considering context; and (3) Formulating safer behaviors that might reduce risk. Despite recognizing that handheld cell phone use, texting, and social media app use are dangerous and distracting while driving, teens and their peers often engaged in these behaviors. Teens described how the context of the situation contributed to whether a teen would place or answer a call, write or respond to a text, or use a social media app. Teens identified ways in which they controlled their behaviors, although some still drew attention away from the roadway.

Conclusions: Cell phone use while driving is a contributor to motor vehicle crashes in teens, and effective interventions to decrease risks are needed. Teens viewed some types of cell phone use as unsafe and describe methods in which they control their behaviors. However, some of their methods still take attention off the primary task of driving. Teens could benefit from behavior change interventions that propose strategies to promote focused attention on the roadway at all times during the driving trip.

Keywords: Theory of Planned Behavior; cell phone; distracted driving; inattention; motor vehicle crashes; teen driving; texting.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Accidents, Traffic
  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / psychology*
  • Attention*
  • Attitude*
  • Automobile Driving / psychology*
  • Cell Phone / statistics & numerical data*
  • Dangerous Behavior
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Licensure / statistics & numerical data
  • Male
  • Risk
  • Risk-Taking
  • Text Messaging
  • United States