Distracted driving—Driving with kids in the car

Consumer Reports News: January 25, 2010 11:39 AM

We’ve spoken quite a bit about distracted driving lately—primarily the issue with using a cell phone or texting while operating a vehicle, but there are many other distractions in the car that can be just as hazardous for drivers and passengers. For many parents (myself included), there are pint-sized distractions every day in the back seat. Yes, driving with kids in the car can be particularly distracting especially if there is crying, whining, or some other issue that warrants attention. Usually it’s either a dropped toy, needing a tissue, drink, or snack, that forces me to reach back and try to assist.

A few weeks ago, my husband rolled into a car in front of him after he inadvertently pulled his foot off the brake at a stop light while reaching to the back seat to tend to our son. After that, we realized that even when stopped, it can not only be dangerous, but expensive (unfortunately, it was a BMW) to look away or remove your attention from the road. Here are some tips to help keep focused and reduce kid distractions while driving.

  1. Be prepared. Before you put the kids in the car, make sure you have items that they may need easily on hand or within reach. For babies, plan for snacks before you depart as eating in the car may not be the best practice due to your limited ability to react to choking or spills. For older kids, put snacks and drinks so that they are accessible and toys within easy reach. In all cases, make sure that any heavier items such as video games or larger books have a place to be stored such as in the seatback pockets so that they won’t become potential projectiles in the event of a crash.
  2. Make them wait. As unpleasant as it can be, tell your kids that you cannot help because you are driving and that they will need to wait until you can pull over or until you get to your destination. You may have to listen to a tantrum, but at least the child is restrained in a seat and cannot hurt anyone.
  3. Keep your eyes forward. Resist the urge to reach back or take your eyes off the road even when you’re stopped. It only takes a second for an accident to occur.
  4. Pull over. If you cannot deal with screaming and need to tend to your child immediately, pull over to a safe spot. It’s safer to get off the highway and go into a gas station, than move to the side of the road where you could face other hazards such as the possibility of getting struck by another vehicle.
  5. Use your mirrors. If your children are in rear-facing car seats, attach a mirror to the head restraint to be able to monitor them. For me, I felt comfortable knowing I could still monitor the kids if there was something wrong without turning around.
  6. Set the ground rules. Educate children on car safety. Tell them that parents need to pay attention to the road, so that everyone is safe. If they know you can’t and won’t react then they won’t expect it.
  7. Distract your children. When I have whining little ones in the car, I try to distract by engaging them in a song or game outside of the car. Children’s music in the CD player or on satellite radio is a nice addition. Pointing out school buses, fire trucks, and traffic lights always seems to work for us and soon they forget what was bothering them in the first place.
  8. Stay off the phone. For the safety of yourself and your children (and others on the road), refrain from using a cell phone to talk or text. You’re carrying precious cargo and your job is to transport them safely. Not to mention you may be potentially setting a poor example. If you need to make a call, pull over to a safe place.

See our kids and car safety section for more safety tips on driving with children.

Liza Barth

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Safety News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more