One of the many things I learned in my son's freshman year of high school had nothing to do with reading, writing or college application résumé-building. I learned the art of the carpool line. Up until this past year, my sons had walked to school right down the street. As a result, I had never sat in an endless line of cars at pickup or drop-off. I had never witness the madness firsthand of late kids, stressed parents and bad driving behavior.
But what was most shocking to me on my early morning commutes to school and back was the number of parents I saw completely distracted by cell phones or PDAs while driving their kids to school. Regardless of the law, common sense or driving safety, lots of moms and dads are texting and driving with kids in the car. Or scrolling through their email on a BlackBerry, one hand on the wheel and no eyes on the road. And my child in the crosswalk.
Now, I'm mad. And I don't get it. If we want our teenagers to drive safely without texting or talking to distract them, how come we, as parents, ignore the same rules of driving safety?
"Because we think can. Driving is a familiar task and you grow more passive as you age. You think: 'I can do this. I can do that.' But you can't," confirms Kristen Tabar, the general manager of electronics at the Toyota Tech Center in Michigan and a mother of three. I met Kristen at the Lexus Family Safety Camp, a driving school for moms, where she explained her research in cognitive capabilities as it related to designing information and navigation systems in cars. "Parents who have been driving for 20 years underestimate how much your brain is working on the primary task: driving the car. Being aware of the changing environment, maintaining a safe speed, adjusting the mirrors—your brain is working hard. Focusing on the driving and the kids in the car is enough. A third task, like texting, can send you into cognitive overload. "
Don't the words "cognitive overload" say it all? If you live with teenagers, you know they are on the verge of cognitive overload at almost any point in the day. From the No Phone Zone segments on The Oprah Winfrey Show and the articles here on Oprah.com, we know the overwhelming statistics about how many of our teen drivers are distracted by texting or talking. We've heard the tragic stories of deaths caused by driving and texting. And yet we continue to drive and text around our own kids and other people's children, modeling exactly the behavior we know can be deadly.
Kristen told me that her company has the technology to include texting and email capabilities in the information system, but they choose not to because of safety. "The technology is possible, but we ask, 'What is reasonable?' We design for convenience, but more importantly we design for safety," she says. "Just because we can put the technology in the car, doesn't mean we should."
Shouldn't parents drive by the same rules: Just because we can text in the car, doesn't mean we should. Perhaps, in addition to underestimating the cognitive load of driving, we also underestimate our job as role models. We can't possible expect our kids to resist the siren call of texting if we can't make it through a simple commute without texting our assistant or checking email. Put down the phone, keep your eyes on the road, and take the No Phone Zone Pledge. Be the driver you want your kids to be, and we'll all get to school safely.
Lian Dolan is a mother, wife, sister, friend, daughter, writer and talk show host. She writes and talks about her adventures in modernmotherhood for herwebsite,ChaosChronicles.com, and her weekly podcast, The Chaos Chronicles.