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Distracted Driving Research

Cell phones and passengers are a major source of inattention to the roadway, contributing to over 20 percent of teen driver motor vehicle crashes, the leading cause of death in teens. Engaging in handheld cell phone use increases the risk of a crash substantially, and distracted driving research is much needed to prevent crashes involving young drivers. Investigators at the University of Pennsylvania and the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia are working together to develop behavior change interventions that include strategies to encourage focused attention on driving. 

Catherine C. McDonald, PhD, RN and M. Kit Delgado, MD, MS are conducting a number of studies to test different interventions aimed at reducing distracted driving, particularly in teen drivers. The distracted driving research tests the effects of a web-based educational intervention, as well as different ways to implement technological solutions such as automated blocking of cell phone use and silencing of notifications while the vehicle is in motion. Outcomes for these studies are measured either through use of a driving simulator and/or a smartphone application and paired in-vehicle device.

Implementation of Technology that Limits Handheld Cell Phone Use While Driving
Novel smartphone applications exist that can limit handheld cell phone use while the vehicle is in motion by locking the phone screen, silencing notifications, and sending automated responses to incoming text messages. These applications work by detecting when the vehicle is traveling over a certain speed threshold. In some cases, hands-free use of navigation and music apps may be permitted if programmed at the beginning of the drive or while stopped. We are testing different ways to implement this technology to sustainably reduce cell phone use distraction in the long run. Ongoing pilot studies include:

  • Way to Safety 3.0: The Teen-Parent Study

Teen drivers often tell us their parents urge them not to text while driving because it is dangerous, yet the teens frequently see them checking email or texting while driving. In this study, we are currently enrolling both teens and their parents to install a smartphone application that tracks and limits cell phone use while driving. Parents will be notified via email when their teen overrides the cell phone blocking function. The study tests the feasibility of an intervention in which teens also receive an email alert when their parents override the cell phone blocking function. The overall goal of the research is to reduce rates of cell phone use while driving for the entire family. 

  • Way to Safety 2.0: Opt-in vs. Opt-out Cellphone Blocking +/-Notifications

In this study, which is closed for enrollment, we are testing the feasibility of different cell phone blocking strategies among teen drivers. The first is “opt-in” blocking, which is similar to using “Airplane Mode:” Drivers must remember to turn on the app when getting in the car. The second is “opt-out” blocking: The app activates automatically when the vehicle is in motion. The third strategy is “opt-out” blocking with notifications: This is the same as the second strategy, but parents will also be alerted when the teen overrides the blocking strategy. 

Funds for these projects were obtained by M. Kit Delgado, MD, MS from the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics/Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics Pilot Grant Program and by the Penn NIA Roybal Center for Behavioral Economics.

Feasibility Testing of an Intervention to Reduce Teen Driver Inattention
In this program of research, we have developed and tested a web-based intervention based on the Theory of Planned Behavior that aims to reduce teen driver inattention to the roadway. We developed the intervention from elicitation and survey data during our previous work and empirical evidence in the literature. We have tested the intervention in two different studies. One study used driving simulation to test the effects of the intervention on cell phone use, passenger engagement and driving performance, and the other used in-vehicle monitoring of cell-phone use while driving. Both studies are closed to enrollment, and we are conducting data analysis. For any questions, please contact our team at or

This research is funded to Catherine C. McDonald, PhD, RN by the National Institute of Nursing Research, the University Research Foundation at PENN and the Dr. Dorothy Mereness Endowed Research Fund at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.


CIRP@CHOP distracted driving research

Research Studies
We are currently enrolling parents and teens in our
  distracted driving studies. For more information,
please contact:

Further reading:

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