Driving While Distracted: Parents do it, too

Story highlights

  • 56% of parents admit checking their phones while driving, according to a poll
  • Poll: 51% of teens said their parents check and/or use their phones while driving
  • For too many parents, it's the old adage of "do as I say, not as I do"

Check out the weeklong series "DWD: Driving While Distracted" online and tune in to the TV special on CNNgo.

(CNN)Laura Maurer said she is not the type to text while driving. Case in point: Two years ago, when she needed to send a text to a client who frequented her hair salon, she pulled over on a country road near her home in Brooklyn, Iowa, to send it.

But when she pulled back onto the road, she did something she says she will regret for the rest of her life. Her client texted her back. She tried to ignore the ping signaling an incoming text but ultimately couldn't resist it.
    "I don't think I even read the whole thing," Maurer said in an emotional interview at her home. "I kind of skimmed it and sat (the phone) down, and when I looked back up, there he was."
    She slammed on her brakes and went to swerve but clipped the tiller that Marvin Beck, a 75-year-old farmer, father and grandfather, was pulling on the side of the road. Beck was ejected from his tractor and died at the scene.
    "I don't think there is an hour that goes by that I don't think about it in some way," said Maurer, a mom of two. "Even if I could just save one kid from not doing it or one person, I think, at least that is a little bit of comfort, you know, open people's eyes and make them realize we need to change the way we're driving."
    Maurer's story is an example of how distracted driving is not just an issue with teenage drivers. Though many of us might think teens are the ones who can't resist checking Snapchat, Instagram and other social networks, or texting, taking videos or playing video games while behind the wheel, parents have a hard time steering clear of their devices while driving, too.
    In a poll conducted for Common Sense Media, 56% of parents admitted checking their phones while driving.
    "We're finding estimates of about half of all parents say that they drive distracted," said Despina Stavrinos, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's distracted driving research lab. "So that's not really helping for where we're trying to get in terms of shifting the societal norms. If Mom and Dad are doing it, then hey, it must be OK."
    Fifty-one percent of teens said they see their parents checking and/or using their mobile devices while driving, according to the Common Sense Media poll.
    "My mom is a big Facebooker," said one high school student in Long Island, New York. "So every single second, she's always on her phone texting and I will always tell her, 'Mom, your kids are in the car. Like it's one thing if it's just you, but my little sister is with us. Can you just stop for maybe a couple minutes?' "

    'Grand slam of bad parenting'

    It's the "old do as I say, not as I do" adage, said Deborah Hersman, president and chief executive officer of the National Safety Council. She says 95% of parents who say they drive distracted admit doing it in front of their teens. "That's just like the grand slam of bad parenting, because you are modeling the wrong behavior, and then you're telling the kids not to do something that they've watched you do potentially for years."
    David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, said that when he talks to children and adolescents about the factors that caused them to overuse their technology, they often talk about their parents' use of technology.
    "So if you want your child or adolescent or young adult to not use the technology, you have to model it for them," said Greenfield, who is also an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut's School of Medicine. "They're watching everything you're doing, and they will mimic what you're doing."
    Geoff Lee, a father of two boys and president and general manager of Road Atlanta, a racetrack in Braselton, Georgia, admits that he has texted while driving.
    "I should know better, so mostly I do know better, but that doesn't mean that there aren't those times when you think, 'OK, well, it is just a second, and I really need to respond to this.' And I am as guilty of it as anybody is," he said. He basically told his high school-age son, who's a new driver, not to follow his lead. His son wouldn't think of it, he said.
    "He reminds me of all the responsibilities involved with driving. ... I hope he will pay attention to his advice as I try to heed it now these days as well," Lee said.

    Hoping to reach as many people as possible

    Maurer, the mom who admitted looking at a text and killing someone, plead guilty to distracted driving and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. Sixteen days were deferred, which meant she spent 14 days in jail last summer and is now in the process of completing 200 hours of community service, sharing her story and warning others about the dangers of using a phone while behind the wheel.
    When I asked her whether people might think she should have served a longer sentence in jail, she says that doing the community service has been a much more difficult penalty for her.
    "Going and educating people on it has been much harder on me than (jail)," she said. "The day that I give a class ... I am usually going to be depressed when I get home. ... I am not going to be myself, and I am usually going to be quiet and probably go to bed early."
    At the same time, she believes harsher penalties may serve as a deterrent for others.
    "I think there needs to be the fear of jail for some people, and they need to know how devastating it is and how much you affect so many people's lives," she said. "And so if it will get them to stop doing it, then absolutely I think it should be a harsher punishment, and maybe people will pay attention more."
    But even some of her friends, she says -- fellow parents who know her story -- still can't seem to stay away from the phone while driving.
    She tells of heading to a baseball game with her husband when a friend, a fellow parent with a child on her son's team, texted her while driving right behind their car.
    "When I saw her later, she said, 'I know. I didn't even think.' My attitude is, 'Don't do it just because it's me,' " Maurer said. "I don't want you to do it at all because it's dangerous."
    As she has gone across her community, speaking at schools and hospitals and in front of youth groups, she is struck by how widespread distracted driving is.
    "It's amazing how many people will say, 'I don't think there's one person who hasn't been in the car with somebody who's been distracted at one point or another in their life,' " she said. As people admit what they have seen or even done themselves, Maurer believes it might help them think twice about doing it again.
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    "I think this is in a little bit my therapy, because ... I hope if at least I reach one person and they don't make the mistake."
    Coming Wednesday: The science behind distracted driving. Why our brain instinctively responds to that 'ping' from our phone.
    What do you think can be done to stop parents from distracted driving? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.