I've had quite my share of "bad mommy" moments -- but there's one that still makes me shudder: It was a June day and I had taken my then 3-week-old daughter, Campbell, on a Target run. I started down the aisle, ticking off my list, when I realized: Oh my God, Campbell's not here. Where is she?
I raced outside. Sure enough, I'd left her in the car. A hot car. I was horrified with myself. But she was so quiet back there -- and I was just so tired -- that I'd spaced out. She was dozing peacefully, but it was a huge eye-opener for me: Protecting my child is my first priority, yet there I was, driving her around when I was exhausted and unfocused. Judging by the results of our survey, a whole lot of you can relate. We partnered with Safe Kids Worldwide, an organization aimed at preventing childhood injuries, to poll 2,396 new mothers about their driving habits. What we discovered shocked even the experts.
A vast majority of new moms surveyed (63 percent) claim they're more cautious behind the wheel since giving birth, but the stats suggest otherwise. We're getting in the car when we feel admittedly too tired to drive -- and once on the road, we're chatting on our phone, checking email, sending texts, and handing out Binkys, all while hurtling through traffic. "Looking at this data was like reading the results of a teen-driver survey, in terms of the unsafe habits new moms have: driving fatigued, getting distracted by passengers and technology, always being in a hurry," says Dennis Durbin, M.D., a pediatric emergency physician and scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
But our point isn't to guilt trip! It's to help keep you and your precious cargo safe every time you turn the engine on. Start by reading up on the most common driving mistakes our survey says new moms make, then take a U-turn toward smarter behavior. Happy travels!
Nearly three quarters of us say we're more flustered in our daily lives since having kids, and two thirds of moms find it tough to concentrate on a single task. That lack of focus carries over to the driver's seat. "It's become part of our culture to not just drive, but to drive and do 20 other things," says Kate Carr, president and CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide. Now while we?re checking email and applying lip gloss, we've got an adorable-but-needy baby in the back seat. In fact, 98 percent of parents driving with a child report being preoccupied for nearly a third of the time they're on the road, Australian research shows. The result, as you can probably guess, is not good: On average, distracted driving causes 8,000 crashes a day, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates.
Play offense, not defense. If you've got a fussy-pants passenger, rather than taking your eyes and hands off the wheel, pull over. Find a safe spot, such as a parking lot, and deal with whatever he needs (bottle, fresh diaper, Cheerios). And don't try to make up that time once you're on the road again. In our poll, 55 percent of moms admit to driving above the speed limit to make it to day care or to get home with their wailing baby faster. "But adding speed to situations when you're not focused is scary -- the risk of an accident isn't worth the few minutes you might save," Dr. Durbin says.
Repeat after us: It's okay to be late for that pediatrician appointment.
But experts say we should. Our survey revealed that 78 percent of us talk on the phone while driving with our baby, and that 26 percent text or check email. All are unquestionably reckless. "Research shows you're four times more likely to have an accident when you talk on your cell, even hands-free," says David Strayer, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and a leading researcher on car accidents and distracted driving. "That's the same risk as driving drunk," he adds. "When you text or email, your odds of a having a crash shoot up eightfold, making it twice as risky as drunk driving. It's ironic, because if you ask moms if they'd ever drink and drive with their baby in the car, they'd say to you, 'Absolutely not!' But people don't consider cellphone use to be equally, if not more, dangerous."
At home and work, you may thrive on multitasking, but that approach doesn't belong on the road. None of us are good at doing several things at once, and "driving is a multitasking activity, before you add the phone," Dr. Durbin says. Studies show that when we start chatting, our brains miss half the visual information (brake lights, stop signs, pedestrians) we need to see to drive safely.
Turn off your phone and put it in the backseat. You won't be tempted to talk on it while driving or, worse, check or send texts and emails. At the very least, treat your phone the way you would if you were going into an important meeting: Turn off the ringer -- so the "ding!" of notifications won't entice you to check it -- then stash it in your purse or anywhere it won't be within reach.
Seriously: The moms in our survey log a consecutive 5 hours and 20 minutes of sleep a night -- an hour and a half less than the 6 hours and 50 minutes that truckers average, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Of course, it's no surprise that we're bleary-eyed, but what is remarkable is how drastically it affects our driving. "Just one night on such little rest will slow your reaction time behind the wheel," Dr. Strayer says. Even if you think your eyes are open, it's possible for you to fall into a brief three- to four-second episode of sleep in traffic without realizing it.
Yet we spend plenty of road time running on empty. Moms average a staggering 150 miles a week, running errands and zipping to day care and music classes. And more than a third of those polled reported buckling up despite feeling too tired to drive.
"I had to pull over once because I was literally falling asleep with my 3-month-old son, Nicholas, in the back," says Larysa DiDio, who lives in Pleasantville, New York. "I kept veering off the road and slapping my face to stay awake. So I found a shady spot in the back of a Kmart parking lot, cracked the windows and locked the doors, and the baby and I napped! I remember thinking, Should I be sleeping here? " It beats the alternative: 56,000 crashes a year are attributed to driving while drowsy, according to the NHTSA. And as with distracted driving, the risk of having an accident is the same as when driving drunk.
Before you grab your car keys, ask yourself if the trek is necessary or if your partner can do it. If you're already out and suddenly feel as though you might nod off, follow NHTSA recommendations and do what DiDio did: Pull off the road, find a safe, shady area, crack the windows, lock the doors, and set the timer on your phone to wake you after a power nap. If your munchkin won't have that, down some caffeine (200 milligrams, about two cups of coffee), which can temporarily perk you up. Then head straight home. For the record: Opening a window or listening to music doesn't work, NHTSA says.
Nearly 10 percent of new moms in our poll have been in a crash while driving their baby. That might not sound like much, but it's nearly three times higher than the rate among the general population. "It's on the order of the accident rate of teen drivers -- a group we think of as particularly at risk," Dr. Durbin says. One possible cause: looking back at Baby. A whopping 64 percent of you have turned around to tend to your tot's needs while driving. "I find that alarming," Dr. Strayer says. "Taking your eyes off the road, even for two seconds, increases your risk of an accident. In that time, a car going 55 miles per hour will travel 176 feet, about half the length of a football field, with no one really piloting it."
Megan Catalano, of Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, mom of 2-year-old Cameron, gets it. She recently had a near miss because of a Pillow Pet. "I was driving on the highway from my in-laws' house in North Carolina to our home in New Jersey," she says. "My daughter was fussy, so I handed her Pillow Pet back to her to help her nod off. Meanwhile, the guy in front of me pulled onto the shoulder and came to a stop -- with his car partly in my lane. Because I was distracted, I almost hit him. It was so scary."
Another bad habit is that we rush around town on autopilot, figuring that it's familiar turf. In fact, "half of crashes that involve children occur within 10 miles of the kid's home, on the everyday trips moms make," says Dr. Durbin. "There's a lot to contend with on local roads -- intersections, lights, turn lanes, driveways -- even more than on highways."
Before you take off, say to yourself, "Okay, I have a lot going on, but I need to focus on driving now." "That pause that you're about to do something that deserves your attention works," Dr. Strayer says. And, of course, eliminate distractions as much as you can (see #1).
Fifty-eight percent of you find installing them difficult, and you're not getting help. Six in 10 moms haven't had their baby's child-safety seat checked by a child-passenger safety technician, our poll found. If used properly, a child-safety seat can reduce fatalities among infants by 71 percent, according to the NHTSA, yet stats show that three out of every four of these seats are not used correctly. "I've been in this field for 26 years, and I can tell you that parents are making the same mistakes today they were making years ago, even though the products are better," says Lorrie Walker, training manager for Safe Kids Worldwide. "It's amazing to me, because riding in the car is the single greatest health risk your child will face until adulthood."
Have your child-safety seat checked out by a pro. Find an inspection site in your area that offers free installations. (Go to SafeKids.org.) Then get familiar with the seat's manual. "Parents never read the directions -- they think, How hard can it be?" Walker says. "But you never want to someday say, 'I wish I had.'?"The seat should be snug enough in the car that you can't wiggle it back and forth more than an inch. And be sure to follow the new recommendation to leave your tot riding rear-facing until at least age 2. Tests show it's much safer. Once your child is buckled in, tighten the straps until there is no excess strap for you to pinch at the shoulders.
Eight percent of us admit to leaving our toddlers unattended in the car to run a quick errand, yet the only acceptable number is zero. "Even a few minutes in the car can be dangerous," Carr says. Children's bodies don't regulate temperature as well as adults'. In the car, a child's body temperature can plummet fast on frigid days or quickly rise to unsafe, possibly deadly, levels on mild days.
It's also easy (as my parking-lot scare proves) to leave an infant in the car by accident. "I've seen it happen time and again," Carr says. "These aren't careless parents. They're solid, loving parents who just forget." For first-time moms, remembering to get your newborn from the backseat may not be a habit yet. Forgetfulness can also strike, Carr says, on an off-routine day. Maybe you're supposed to do the day-care drop-off instead of your partner handling it one morning -- but you forget and drive straight to work, leaving your little one in the car.
Never leave your baby alone in the car. To avoid a calamity, put something on the backseat, like your cellphone, that you'll need when you arrive. Trust me, it works! Ever since that terrifying June day, I've made it a habit to toss my bag next to Campbell every single time we get in the car. Today she's a never-again-forgotten 6-year-old who loves to bicker with her brother on long trips. Now, if only I could get those two to pipe down. Kiddos, it's distracting!
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of American Baby magazine.