Reducing teen crash rates

What is More Dangerous than Being a Teen Driver? Being a Teen Who Rides with One!

Many parents know that training their teen to be a good driver is critical to the teen’s safety.   But parents also need to limit the number of passengers who ride with their teen and pay attention to the teen drivers their children ride with as passengers.  Studies show that the presence of one passenger doubles the fatal crash risk for a teen driver, and the risk increases with each additional passengers.   Forty percent of teen motor-vehicle deaths involve passengers.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among American teenagers, accounting for 36% of all deaths of teens aged 15-19.  Two-thirds of the deaths of passengers in this age group happen in cars driven by other teenagers.

In a study at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, researchers discovered that:

  • A 16-year-old carrying one passenger is 39% more likely to get killed than one driving alone.
  • The likelihood increases 86% with two passengers and 182% with three or more.
  • The rate for 17-year-olds is still higher – 48% with one passenger, 158% with two passengers, and 207% with three passengers.

A study by the University of Michigan Transportation Institute said that the most significant risk issues for teen drivers are teen passengers, driving on weekends and driving at night.  In addition, the researchers found that 56% of the teen drivers in the study had been in at least one crash.

Even teens seem to understand the risk.  A 2008 survey by Erie Insurance Company found that although 91% of teens think they are driving safely, only 34% could say the same of their friends.  Ninety-seven percent of the teens surveyed said they had seen other teen drivers participating in risky behaviors such as speeding and not wearing seatbelts.  Forty-eight percent said they are easily distracted when friends are passengers.  In a separate study by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm, the number was even higher – 94% of teens said that passengers distracted the driver in some way; for example, by talking on a cell phone or listening to loud music.

In addition to the distraction caused by cell phones and loud music, a study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health found that teenage drivers of both genders were more likely to tailgate and exceed the speed limit if there was a teenage male passenger in the front seat.   In fact, when a male passenger was in the vehicle, a quarter of teenage drivers exceeded the speed limit by at least 15 miles per hour.  Also, female teen drivers were slightly more likely to tailgate if there was a female teen passenger in the vehicle with them.

Increasing the risk still further is the phenomenon of teen passengers not using seat belts. Studies show that even teens who buckle up as drivers often neglect to wear a safety belt when they are passengers in another teen’s car.

Researchers from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN analyzed data from national youth risk behavior surveys collected in 2001 and 2003 from 12,731 black, white and Hispanic high school students aged 16 and older.  The study found that 59% of the teens always used safety belts while driving, but only 42% always buckled up as passengers.  Only about 1/3 of the students surveyed said they always wore safety belts whether driving or riding as a passenger.

Passenger restrictions for teen drivers already exist as part of Graduated Licensing Laws in many states, and research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicated that passenger restrictions reduce crashes among 16-year-old drivers, so familiarize yourself with the laws in your state.  If restrictions exist, be sure to enforce them as part of your house rules.  If there are no restrictions, review the requirements in a few nearby states so you can create your own. Be sure to investigate the teen drivers your child might ride with – talk to the teen’s parents about the driver training the teen has received, and address any indiscretions (such as peeling out of your driveway) promptly.  Make sure your teen knows the importance of wearing a safety belt, whether driving or riding as a passenger, and teach your teen not to distract other drivers.  Review teen driver safety topics with your teen on a regular basis – use this newsletter for ideas.

Whether legislated or not, restrictions on passengers for teen drivers are necessary for your teen’s safety.  Traffic deaths for teens have decreased significantly since passenger and other restrictions were added to Colorado’s Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) law in 2005.  In the three years prior to the enactment of passenger restrictions, more than 100 drivers and passengers aged 15-20 died on Colorado roadways each year.  In 2006, the year after the restrictions went into effect, the number of teens killed dropped to 72, and in 2007, the number dropped again to 51- a 50% drop since 2003.  These restrictions must be enforced to make a difference – by parents as well as by law enforcement.

“We will continue to be vigilant in enforcing the state’s GDL law, but we also need parents’ help in making sure the law is followed at home,” said Col. Mark Trostel, chief of the Colorado State Patrol.  “Sign a parent-teen driving agreement, don’t allow your teenager to have too many passengers during their first year of driving, establish a driving curfew, make sure they buckle up every time, and set yourself as an example.”