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The Biggest Driving Distraction For Parents? It's Not What You Think

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Screencap from 2011 Toyota Sienna ad campaign

Screencap from 2011 Toyota Sienna ad campaign

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We all remember what it was like to be a kid, trapped in the back seat, cutting up with brothers or sisters or schoolmates. Our parents would turn around and give us "that look", promising all sorts of punishments if we didn't keep still. Occasionally, they'd pull over to the side of the road, which was the most ominous threat of all. (In their defense, though, pulling over was often the only way to get our attention.)

Given those memories, it might seem that the biggest driving distraction for parents would be their unruly children. But as it turns out, that's not entirely accurate.

Researchers at the University of Michigan recently spent eight months conducting a study at two of the state's hospitals. Between October 2011 and May 2012, the team interviewed parents and caregivers of children ages one through 12 who'd been brought to the emergency rooms at those facilities.

During the interviews, respondents were asked how often they'd performed certain distracting activities while driving within the previous month. According to a press release, "[t]hese behaviors included talking on the phone (hands-free or handheld), texting/surfing the Internet, self-care (grooming, eating) child care (picking up a toy, feeding their child), getting directions (navigation system, map) and changing a CD or DVD." A total of 618 adults participated, with 575 completing the full survey.

Most drivers had succumbed to at least four of the ten distractions suggested by the study's researchers. But while child-care did rank high on the list, it wasn't number one. Here are the top six results, in reverse order:

6. Texting

5. Entertainment

4. Directions

3. Self-care

2. Child-care

1. Phone calls

That's right: though roughly 70% of drivers said that they'd been distracted by child-care duties within the past month, even more -- about 75% -- had taken or made calls behind the wheel.

While that might seem surprising, here's one thing that's not: folks who said that they'd never been involved in a motor vehicle collision were significantly less likely to engage in distracted driving behaviors. 

Also worth pointing out: drivers who hadn't buckled up their kids (as Michigan law requires) were 2.5 times more likely to report being distracted by child-care. (Duh, they're called "restraints" for a reason.) For reason yet to be determined, those folks were also more likely to have texted from behind the wheel than their law-abiding counterparts.

Perhaps strangest of all: "Parents of minority race/ethnicity were significantly less likely to report their child always uses the age-appropriate restraint compared with white parents, even after controlling for education, income, child age, motivation to use a safety seat and personal seat belt use." Researchers don't understand why that may be, but you can bet they'll follow up on that in future studies.

[via Cnet, h/t John Voelcker]

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