Driving while Distracted

What You Need

Driving while Distracted Photo Credit: clipart.com


To understand the likely causes of distracted driving and its possible effects.


One of the rights of passage into adulthood is learning how to drive. When students can drive by themselves, they obtain a new level of freedom to just go and do what they want without parental supervision. With that freedom comes personal responsibility for themselves, those in their cars, and for others on the road.

Distracted driving is a very important issue to tackle with young drivers, because teens often feel invincible and believe that certain rules of the road do not apply to them. Distracted driving is a large and growing problem on our roads today, and young drivers are more likely to be involved in a fatal crash caused by distracted driving than older people. But if students understand the danger and potential consequences of their actions behind the wheel, they can be convinced that caution is the better path. In this lesson, students will perform some research to learn more about distracted driving.

Cell phones have created a whole new form of distraction and they are largely responsible for the almost 6,000 highway deaths each year that involve distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The most dangerous part of using a cell phone while driving is texting, which is likely responsible for more than 16,000 road fatalities between 2002 and 2007. Since texting while driving is a relatively new phenomenon, there is information about it but not a wealth of resources. This lesson will steer students towards the better ones.

It takes a long time to change behavior and ways of thinking about actions. It took several decades to develop and imprint in young people's minds, "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk." Making teens aware of distracted driving is a long-term process and we are early as a society in developing tools for it. Teaching students about distracted driving is a good first step to ensuring their safety on the road.

There is a national campaign against distracted driving focused on texting while driving and limiting the use of hand-held gadgets by drivers. But there also are many other ways to be distracted, to which little attention is paid. Students will learn the three main types of distraction:

  • Visual—Taking your eyes off the road (texting, rubber necking to see what happened with an accident, reading an e-mail or a book, studying, etc.)
  • Manual—Taking your hands off the wheel (texting, fiddling with CDs and radios, calming a screaming baby, eating, etc.)
  • Cognitive— Taking your mind off what you're doing (talking on a cell phone, fighting, etc.)
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Planning Ahead

To plan for this lesson, you should review the resources students will use in their research. There is a Distracted Driving Flyer online that can be downloaded and handed out to students to share with family and friends.


We suggest you begin the lesson by using a Smartboard or projector to show the Monkey Business Illusion to your students. This illusion was developed by a professor of psychology at the Beckman Institute within the University of Illinois. The illusion demonstrates in a powerful way that people have trouble focusing on more than one thing at a time.

Only about 50% of the people who watch this video see the gorilla that appears in the middle of it. It's a conversation starter and a good way of convincing students that visual and mind distraction do occur. Even if students see the gorilla, they may miss the curtain changing color and a person on the black team leaving the game.

When people are focused on one aspect of the video, they often miss the other changes that occur during it. This finding is a particularly dramatic example of inattentional blindness or the failure to see something obvious when focusing attention on something else.

We suggest you show the video twice so that students absorb the full impact of it.

Questions to ask after the first video showing:

  • A show of hands, how many of you saw the gorilla?
  • How many of you didn't see the gorilla in the video?
  • Who can tell me what the gorilla did in the video?
  • Were there any other changes during the video?

Questions to ask after the second video showing:  

  • What do you think is the point of the video?
  • What does it mean that some people didn't see the gorilla?
  • Do you know what distracted driving is?
  • What are some examples of it?
  • What could this video potentially show us about distracted driving?

Answers to these questions will vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.


In this part of the lesson, students will learn more about distracted driving by conducting research on the topic. Daniel Simon, who created the Monkey Business Illusion video, also discusses research on distraction while passing another car or doing something similar that is a maneuver rather than just driving steadily. He found that many accidents occurred while the driver was trying to maneuver, because as they try to do something like get off at an exit while talking on a cell phone, their complete focus is not on the road.

Before students dive into their research, they should use their Distracted Driving student esheet to listen to these two Science Update radio shows:

As students listen to these radio shows, they should answer the questions on the Distracted Driving student sheet. After students have listened to these shows, lead them in a class discussion of the answers to those questions. You can use the Distracted Driving teacher sheet as a guide.

Now that students have been introduced to some of the research that has been conducted on distracted driving and they know some more about the topic, they should conduct their own research. Divide students up into small groups to perform research on distracted driving and answer the questions on the Distracted Driving student sheet. Students can use their student esheet to get to some online resources that can help them in their research. Ask them to pick a team leader who will report back to the class on what they have found. Make sure students source all of the information they gather.

Once students have finished their research, bring the class back together to discuss the students' answers. Focus on three main themes:

  1. What is distracted driving and what causes it?
  2. Why is distracted driving a major problem for new drivers?
  3. What are the legal issues involved in distracted driving and how are states dealing with them?


Ask each student or team to develop a one-minute public service advertisement (PSA) to convince teens not to drive distracted. Ads can be in storyboard, video, or another format they are comfortable with. An important component of the ad will be to share the research findings about the likely causes of distracted driving and its possible effects. This can be done in class or as a homework assignment.

Review the ads with the entire class to make sure they meet this criteria:

  • Does the ad demonstrate an understanding of what causes distracted driving?
  • Is the ad creative and original in content?
  • Would you be persuaded to think twice about driving distracted because of this ad?

To help sum up the ideas in the lesson, have a discussion with your class that touches on the main ideas of the learning goals. You can ask students questions like those found on the teacher sheet.


No call, no text, no update behind the wheel is a report from the National Transportation Safety Review Board from December 2011 that recommended that drivers be banned from using personal electronic devices—including via handsfree means—while operating a vehicle in order to lessen the likelihood of distracted driving.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards