The vast majority of parents admit to being distracted in some way while driving their young child around, a new survey reveals.
Among roughly 600 parents surveyed, nearly 90 percent said that in the past month they had engaged in at least one type of technological interaction that distracted them while transporting a child between the ages of 1 and 12 years old.
The No. 1 such distraction: phone calls.
"A lot of the attention on the distracted-driving issue has focused on teens and new drivers," said lead author Dr. Michelle Macy, a clinical lecturer in the departments of emergency medicine and pediatrics at the University of Michigan. "But our study is showing that most parents say they were distracted an average of four times when driving their child in the last month, which is more frequent than I had expected.
"Nine in 10 admitted to being distracted by technology, but we also asked about other distractions, such as feeding a child and picking up a toy for a child," she said. "Those were pretty common as well. As were parents eating, drinking or smoking while driving, all of which were also up there in frequency."
Macy, also with the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., discussed the findings Sunday and Monday at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Washington, D.C.
Survey participants were all parents or caretakers who were questioned when their children were brought to one of two hospital emergency rooms in Michigan for any reason, not necessarily involving a car crash.
Parents were asked to indicate how often they had been distracted while driving with a child over the previous month. Possible distractions included: phone calls (both hands-free and not), texting, surfing the Web, grooming, eating, attending to their child, using a navigation system or map, and engaging with their vehicle's entertainment system.
The result: More than 70 percent said they had been distracted by phone calls, with more than half of those saying their mobile phone was a distraction the majority of trips they took.
Nearly as many said they had tried to feed their child or deal with their things while driving. Again, more than half of those parents said this happened the majority of times they got behind the wheel.
Self-grooming was a distraction for just shy of 70 percent of those polled, while more than half admitted to trying to sort out directions while driving.
Changing the music in their car had been a distraction for about half of parents. The least common distraction noted was texting, which a little more than 10 percent of parents said was an issue for them.
Those drivers who said such distractions were an issue also were more likely to have been in a car crash at some point.
Contributing to such risk was the question of proper use of child restraints. Those who drove while their child was not properly strapped into a car seat, booster or seat belt (depending on age) were two and a half times as likely to be distracted in some way by their child while driving.
Car-restraint use in kids varied by race, the researchers said, with age-appropriate use found among 86 percent of white parents, 65 percent of black parents and 70 percent of parents from other racial groups.
The authors also observed that parents with higher education and higher income levels were the most likely to be distracted while driving their child around.
"The message here is that a parent's eyes and hands need to be giving full attention to the most important job at the moment while driving their child around, and that is driving," Macy said. "It may be inconvenient, but it's a question of personal responsibility, and of staying focused. Because not everyone is able to self-regulate, it may be that more state and local legislation is needed to restrict things like phone-calling while driving, to make clear that driving while distracted is not OK."
For his part, Bill Hall, manager of the occupant protection program at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, expressed little surprise at the degree of the problem unveiled by the survey.
"Quite frankly, all drivers of all ages tend to be distracted by a wide range of issues," Hall said. "The message that we always try to get across when we are talking to parents and dealing with children is that when you are driving, your primary job needs to be driving. If there is some need -- a child needs to be fed or you need to adjust a child's restraints -- then the prudent thing to do is find a safe place to pull over. What you should not do is try to tend to these things while driving."
Because this research was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.