The map, from Li’s paper, shows which states have higher rates of texting while driving. Credit: Courtesy of Li Li

An Ohio State doctoral student found in a recent study, published in the “Journal of Adolescent Health,” that two in five teenagers text while driving.

Li Li, the lead author of the study and a PhD candidate studying epidemiology — the study of incidence, distribution and possible control of diseases or other factors relating to health — examined individual- and state-level factors associated with dangerous driving behaviors among teenagers.

“Crashes are preventable,” Li said. “So, if we can do something to find those high risk populations and promote some interventions, we can gather information and decrease the rate of crash — reducing the number of deaths and reducing the injuries.”

The study looked at Youth Risk Behavior Survey data from 35 states and found that nearly two in every five teenage drivers, age 14 and older, have texted while driving at least once in the month prior to the survey collection.

The study was done in conjunction with researchers from The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, where Li’s adviser, Motao Zhu, is a principal investigator. Li acts as a graduate research associate at the hospital.

Zhu, senior author of the article, told Reuters Health the results make the case for stronger enforcement of laws on cellphone usage while driving and are also warning signs for parents.

“Texting while driving is severely under-enforced, so we don’t see many tickets for texting drivers,” Zhu said to Reuters. “The earlier teens start driving, the earlier they start texting while driving.”

Li said the permit age in the states makes a difference, with teenagers in states where they can begin driving at age 14 having a higher rate of texting while driving compared to those states where teenagers begin driving at 16.

“There’s a huge difference in each state,” Li said. “In some rural states, people will have a higher rate of texting and driving because the public transportation is lower, so most of those students, they need to drive on their own.”

Out of the 35 states examined, 34 have laws in place that ban the activity of texting while driving for ages 21 and younger. Montana is the one state from the data that does not have such a law.

“We are also interested in the law evaluation, such as texting bans or handheld bans — whether that’s effective in reducing distracted driving,” Li said.

Li requested the YRBS data from the participating states in order to get permission to use it for the study. She has since been involved in other research projects under Zhu’s supervision that involve partnerships with organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One project involves the incorporation of a cell phone app that blocks distractions while driving.

“The app will block their phones so you cannot be texting or calling, but you can still use GPS. Probably in the future, we want to do some kind of intervention program,” Li said.

Li’s study won Best Student Paper Award at the American Public Health Association annual meeting in November 2017, and she said it was exciting to receive the award from such a large conference.

“APHA is the largest public health conference. It’s good to present there and then get some comments and suggestions from peers and colleagues,” Li said. “It’s good to get feedback.”

Li also won the Injury Control and Emergency Health Services Presidents’ Road Safety Scholarship in 2017 and was named a 2018 Traffic Safety Scholar at the Lifesavers National Conference, hosted by Highway Safety Priorities.

“It’s given to graduate students and also some undergraduates who are focused on safety,” Li said. “So, there are people from different backgrounds of engineering, public health, psychological …all students who are doing safety.”