Parents who talk or text on cell phones while driving with their kids in the car are also more likely to engage in other risky driving behaviours, including not wearing a seat belt or driving under the influence of alcohol, a small study suggests.
More than half of parents in an anonymous survey admitted to talking on the phone while driving with their young kids in the car. Nearly 15 per cent also didn't use appropriate child restraints every time they drove their kids, and these parents were more likely to use their phones and take other chances while driving.
"There are a lot of people on the road who are driving distracted and, usually, they are engaged in more than one dangerous driving practice at the same time," said Linda Roney of the Egan School of Nursing and Health Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, who wasn't involved in the study.
"Unfortunately, a lot of these people are driving children and they are sharing the road with us," Roney said in an email.
For the study, Catherine McDonald, a senior fellow at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and her colleagues used the online crowdsourcing platform Turk Prime to recruit a sample of 760 adults from 47 US states.
Survey participants were required to be at least 18 years old, to be parents or routine caregivers of children between the ages of 4 and 10 and to have driven the oldest of those children at least six times in the preceding three months.
McDonald told Reuters Health they selected the 4-to-10-year age group because those children normally ride forward-facing and are thus able to observe their parents' behaviours. This age group also has inconsistent compliance with child restraint use, she noted.
Survey participants anonymously answered questions about their behaviours when driving with their kids, such as using a cell phone to talk, read, send text messages and use social media. They also answered questions about how regularly they used seatbelts, regardless of whether the child was in the car, and how often they had driven drunk or "buzzed."
Researchers found that 52.2 per cent of parents reported talking on a hands-free phone while driving with a young child in the car and 47 per cent had done so with a hand-held phone. Just over a third of parents reported reading text messages while driving their children, while 26.7 per cent said they had sent text messages. Almost 14 per cent reported using social media while driving with children.
Looking at whether risky driving behaviours go together, the study team also found that the 14.5 per cent of parents who did not consistently use a child restraint system were twice as likely as the ones who did to talk on their phone while driving, and three times as likely to use social media while in a moving vehicle with kids.
Having a history of driving under the influence and of not consistently wearing a seat belt while driving was also tied to a higher likelihood of using a cell phone while driving with children.
McDonald emphasised that even parents who did not engage in more traditional risky behaviours still used their cell phones while driving. But the clustering of risky behaviours "points to an opportunity for health education and health promotion with parents."
The study is limited by its reliance on participants to report their own behaviours, and the researchers had no information about whether any of the risky behaviours led to car accidents, the authors acknowledge in The Journal of Pediatrics.
Roney calls the notion that we can multitask a popular misconception.
"Neuroscience research confirms that we can't," she said. "When we do more than one thing at the same time, we actually shift our attention to one task at a time . . . . The same thing goes for distracted driving - your attention shifts to your cell phone and you are no longer paying attention to the road or hazards ahead of you."
Activities that take the eyes off the roadway are particularly problematic, McDonald said.
"Parents inherently want their children to be safe and optimally protected and may not realise that engaging with their cell phones while driving puts everyone in the vehicle - and on the road - at risk."