Distracted driving is a serious and dangerous issue across the world. Taking your eyes off the road for even a second could cause an accident, putting yourself and passengers in danger. Although technology tends to get most of the blame, it’s been estimated that child passengers are actually 12 times more distracting to a driver than phones.

Most parents would agree that children are distracting by nature: they cry, kick, drop things, shout, ask questions, and demand immediate action for what they feel they need. And it can be especially tough for new parents to adapt to an altered driving environment; it’s tempting to constantly look back and check on an infant or appease a toddler who won’t stop crying, so learning to keep your focus despite the distractions is challenging.

But parents need not fear! This guide will help ease some of the stress when it comes to driving with your kids, both for new parents who want to ensure the safest ride possible for their precious cargo and seasoned parents who worry their travel routine could use some sprucing up. It will go over how to prevent distractions, as well as potential issues on the road and how to overcome them.

It’s important to be an attentive driver even when you’re solo, but the process is a little trickier – but not impossible! – when there are kids involved.

New mum with her child
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Preventing safety risks

If your child is old enough to understand, start by talking to them about the rules of the car and why they’re important. Let them know that they should be calm and quiet in the backseat so you can maintain your focus on driving. You can even decide on a special reminder to use while behind the wheel in case they forget: a simple, “Mum/Dad is driving right now” will reinforce that you need to keep your attention on the road. Talk to them about the kinds of toys they can play with while riding in the car; nothing too noisy or with flashing lights that might distract you, and nothing that could easily roll to the front seat and get in the way of the pedals.

Story and activity books are great options for the car (provided your child doesn’t get car sick), as well as tablets loaded with child-friendly games, movies, and a pair of headphones. (Never underestimate the importance of headphones — the sound of children’s shows and electronic games can be very distracting.) Be conscious of how your child usually interacts with these kinds of entertainment: ifthey tend to get excited and cry out, it might be best to stick with books in the car.

When you’re preparing to go on a car trip with your child, streamline the travel process as much as possible before leaving. If you’re going to a new location, look up the path your GPS will take. Check the traffic conditions for your trip and make adjustments if needed. Take note of landmarks that will help you get to where you’re going. Addresses aren’t always easy to spot, even with GPS guidance, and you don’t want to be so caught up in looking for a building number that you become unaware of your surroundings and potential hazards.

Once you’re ready to depart, get completely settled before pulling out of the driveway. Make sure your child is buckled up or properly fastened into their car seat. (It’s a good idea to have your child seat inspected by a child-passenger safety technician who can verify it’s assembled and installed correctly, as well as answer any questions or troubleshoot potential problems.) Get familiar with the seat’s user manual and make sure anyone else who drives with your child does the same. Getting confident with this process will not only make your child safer, it will put your mind at ease while you’re driving that they’re securely buckled in. Don’t forget to do a quick sweep of the backseat to move items you don’t want them to get a hold of, be it an umbrella, your sunnies, or anything small they could choke on.

Young boy in the backseat

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Next, get the rest of the car ready for your trip. Adjust the climate controls, mirrors, and sound system, and program your GPS if you need its guidance. Give your child a final visual check (and a verbal check if he’s old enough to verbally respond) to put your mind at ease before shifting gears. Don’t forget to buckle yourself in as well; your own safety is just as important, plus you want to set a good example.

Only let your child eat snacks in the car if they’re past the age where choking is a serious risk, which is usually around the age of 5. If it’s a worry at home, they’re even more at risk in a moving vehicle. You don’t want to be so worried that you continuously watch them in the rear-view mirror and aren’t alert to the task of driving.

On the road: crisis management

No matter how much you prepare your child for the road, you’re likely going to have a few rough rides together. Of course, this isn’t because you aren’t a wonderful parent – some kids don’t like the car, others might get bored easily, and then there are the children who simply cry for the sake of crying. Other passengers, including siblings sharing the backseat, can often help alleviate some of the problems that may arise. Whether you’re with company or solo, remember that it’s your job to first focus on safely navigating the car, and then you can appease the kids.

Crisis in the car!

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You can use your mirrors to keep an eye on things, but only do so briefly when traffic is light. Never turn around to get a better look; it only takes a second for someone to veer into your lane unexpectedly or slam on their brakes in front of you. If something is truly wrong, find a safe route to pull off and stop the car. Only when your car is clear of oncoming traffic and shut off or put in “Park” should you turn completely around to check on your child. Remember that even in an emergency, you’ll only put both of your lives in danger if you don’t safely pull off before turning around.

A common issue with a child in the backseat is dropping a toy. Toddlers can usually tell you what happened, while infants may just cry to let you know. It’s a good idea to bring along a few toys and keep them within his reach so you can easily shift their focus if one does drop. Try to bring toys they know the name of so you can suggest a substitute for whatever fell. If your child is older and can tell you they’ve dropped a toy but can’t reach it, tell them they will have to wait until you’ve arrived at your destination. Never turn around to help them find it, even if you’re stopped at a light. It may be tough to resist their cries, but it’s important for keeping both of you safe!

If they’ve dropped their last or only toy, do what you can to appease them verbally. Speak to them in a calm, happy tone, or sing them their favourite song. Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll just have to let them cry it out. You won’t always be able to safely pull off and grab a lost toy and it’s not worth it to take your eyes off the road. Despite what their cries may be conveying, they’ll be OK until you reach your destination.

Toddlers will often act out when cooped up in the car for long periods, even when they know better. If no amount of verbal warnings does the trick, remember to stay calm until you can pull the car over. It’s important they know that not only is it unsafe to drive with them behaving poorly, it’s also completely unacceptable. Pulling over to give them a tough, face-to-face scolding will help reinforce that it’s a serious issue. Wait until they’ve calmed down before continuing to your destination. Don’t worry about being late or trying to make up for lost time; it’s truly dangerous to drive if they’re throwing a fit, and it’s more important to arrive safely than on-time. (Besides, most parents will understand your struggle!)

Driver fatigue is a risk for any parent, but especially for new ones who are still getting used to an adjusted sleep schedule. It’s important to be well-rested before getting behind the wheel, so if you’re planning on going somewhere when feeling less-than-energised, first ask yourself if the trip is absolutely necessary or if someone else can go in your place. Take help when it’s offered — if your mother-in-law volunteers to pick up groceries to spare you the trip, don’t feel bad about accepting. If you can swing it, taking a quick 20-minute nap before getting in the car can boost your energy and mood, but be sure not to exceed 20 minutes or the rest could actually make you more lethargic. If you’re already out driving and suddenly feel you might nod off, safely pull off the road and turn off the car. Call a loved one for a ride or a cab to take you home. Opening a window or turning on music won’t help you enough to guarantee a safe journey, so don’t take the risk.

Asleep in the back

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Although the use of hands-free devices is legal in Australia, you should consider not using one while driving with your child. Even if they’re getting along fine, there’s no need to add another distraction to your environment. Even the briefest conversations can cause us to miss important visual cues around us, like brake lights, signs, and pedestrians. It’s also important to consider that the sudden presence of a loud voice on speakerphone that your child doesn’t recognise may scare them. And even if they do recognise it, they could get over-excited or even upset — for example, if they hear mum, but cannot see her, they may becomes distressed. Avoid the temptation by keeping your phone silenced in the backseat.

If you’re a new parent, it might take your child some getting used to before they enjoy rides in the car. If they don’t like it straight away, double-check their safety seat isn’t causing any discomfort and that you don’t have any powerful air fresheners that might be bothering them. It’s possible that everything is fine and they just aren’t acclimated, so control what you can and give them – and yourself – some time to adjust. If you’re working on better vehicle habits with an older child, keep the lines of communication open. If your new routine doesn’t seem to be working, talk to them about what the problem is. Remember: the best route to safe and happy travels is a team effort!