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.”

Help… My Teenager Drives Like a 70-Year-Old!

That will be the cry of parents everywhere if they do not enforce state laws – or their own house rules – prohibiting their teens from talking on a cellular telephone while driving.

Research published by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) says that talking on a cell phone turns the reaction time of the average 20-year-old driver into that of a 70-year-old. Researchers observed study participants on four simulated 10-mile trips lasting 10 minutes each. Participants talked on a cell phone during half of the trips and drove without talking for the other half. Hands-free cell phones were used for the study. The results of the study indicated that young drivers were 18% slower in braking response time and took 17% longer to regain the speed they lost while braking when they were using the cell phone.

The difference seems small but is significant – an extra fraction of a second could mean the difference between life and death in an emergency situation.

Young drivers (the term typically refers to drivers under the age of 21) need to know that the fast reflexes and excellent coordination they take for granted can easily be compromised when they submit to the lure of using a cell phone behind the wheel.

And parents of young drivers need to know that enforcement of cell phone laws depends on the example they set for their own teens and enforcement of (or creation of, if there’s no state law) a strict rule about not driving while talking on a cell phone in their own household. Recent research indicates that enactment of a state law prohibiting cell phone use while driving is not sufficient to keep teens from doing so.

A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety/UNC Highway Safety Research Center showed that teenage drivers’ cell phone use actually went up after the state of North Carolina enacted a ban on cell phone use by young drivers. The ban on cell phone use by drivers younger than age 18 is part of the state’s graduated licensing program.

One to two months prior to the ban’s start on Dec. 1, 2006, researchers observed 11% of teen drivers using cell phones as they drove away from school in the afternoon. About five months after the ban, they observed nearly 12% of teen drivers using phones. Half of the teens surveyed by phone after the law took effect said that they had used their cell phones, if they had driven, the day before the interview.

Interestingly, both young drivers and their parents strongly support the law (74% of teens and 95% of their parents) and say that the problem is that it isn’t being enforced. But teens have a far better rate of compliance with other graduated licensing restrictions even when those laws aren’t well-enforced.

“Most young drivers comply with graduated licensing restrictions such as limits on nighttime driving and passengers, even when enforcement is low,” says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research and an author of the study. “The hope in North Carolina was that the same would hold true for cell phone use, but this wasn’t the case…Parents play a big role in compliance with graduated licensing rules.”

Studies show that teenage minds are predisposed to risk-taking. In 2005 and 2006, a series of risk-reward studies across a range of age groups funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and published in The Journal of Neuroscience showed that when confronted with risky choices, the brains of teenagers exhibit twice as much activity in the impulse area as adult brains, while the area that expresses restraint shows less activity. The study indicated that it takes until the early 20s for the two areas to reach parity.

This biological imperative to throw caution to the wind, combined with a teenager’s natural rebellion and peer pressure to be able to handle dangerous situations without exhibiting fear, is a deadly mix.

Enforcement of the law is typically the purview of law enforcement, not parents. But a teen may only be motivated to comply when the law and parental “house rules” intersect, as in the case of driving curfews that are part of the graduated driver’s license programs in most states and household curfews that parents implement for the health and safety of their children.

“Cell phone bans for teen drivers are difficult to enforce,” McCartt says. “Drivers with phones to their ears aren’t hard to spot, but it’s nearly impossible for police officers to see hands-free devices or correctly guess how old drivers are.”

And Barbara Harsha, executive direction of the Governors Highway Safety Association, says, “What [cell phones while driving] laws do is send the message to the parent more than anything else.”

When surveyed after the cell phone restrictions in North Carolina took effect, only 39% of parents said they were aware of the cell phone law, compared with 64% of teen drivers. If only 39% of parents even knew the law existed, how many parents had discussed the law with their children? If parents knew about the law, they could use it to support their own house rules. If cell phone use while driving hadn’t been banned by the parents previously, they could use the state law as support for a new house rule.

Perhaps most difficult for some parents is setting a good example for their teens. Parents must drive the speed limit, wear their seat belts, avoid driving distractions such as cell phone use, and drive defensively. They should pull over to use their cell phones or have a passenger answer it instead. Parents should use this time to point out drivers who demonstrate risky behavior, including talking on cell phones, and initiate a discussion by asking the teen driver to explain why it’s unsafe. Here is a Parent Teen Driving Contract with recommendations from the Driver Education Handbook for Parents to help you and your teen compose a practical contract of rules regarding driving expectations.

Poor decision making

Poor Decision Making a Key Factor in Teen Driving Accidents and Fatalities?

There was a recent editorial on teen driving on and it addressed the new driving laws in Illinois as well as the ineffectiveness that they expect them to have. This editorial says that teen drivers are not necessarily bad ones but rather they make poor decisions. Hmmm … this is no new news to many people.

The editorial goes on to say that teen drivers are a bigger risk because they put themselves into more and more risky driving situations. Yes, this is definitely true and then the editorial goes on to say politicians are well-meaning in their approval and passing of newer, stricter driving laws but that they are not going to do any good. Now this is where things get a little interesting.

The teen writing this editorial goes on to say that the new laws are increasing the waiting time a teen has in order to receive their license but not increasing the practice time requirement. They believe that the extra wait time infers the need for additional practice time. This is likely accurate because it is definitely hopeful that teens will not just sit around waiting for the magical day but rather do something constructive like practice.

This teen editorial goes on to say that the new laws which increase the restriction of driving with more than one teen passenger in the car is getting bumped from 6 months to a year and teens do not understand this law. This editorialist continues on that their driver’s education class just spouts off the new laws but does not talk about the “whys” of it all. Ok, this is where the teen starts to make excuses for their generation. Basically the gist is that because teens don’t understand some of the laws that mean they are going to break them anyway. What?

Teenagers want adults to give them some credit (meaning common sense) when it comes to driving and yet the teen editorialist is basically pleading some type of ignorance saying that teens don’t understand why some of these laws are being put in place? Teens are savvy and they know exactly why these laws are being passed – because their peers are being killed!

Teens know the details of how a peer has gotten killed because they indulge in the same behaviors and allow themselves to be distracted in the same ways. Yet, they never believe an accident or death will every happen to them. It is not ignorance that is holding teens back from following the rules of the road, it is simple denial.

Taking Do as I Say, Not as I Do to the Limit with Teens

Perhaps one of the most important axioms today when it comes to shaping young minds is “lead by example.” However, you better watch what you do behind the wheel of your car! Your teenagers may seem that they are indifferent to the world around them, buried in their MP3 player or Gameboy, but they are truly watching your every move behind the wheel, at least part of the time.

The concept of “leading by example” is definitely an altruistic one that parents say they often do, but surveys of teens across the country say that the parent contingent is rather lax in that area. There are teen reports of parents shouting at drivers, talking on the cell phone while driving, not wearing seat belts and much more.

The key to bringing down that high figure of teenage driving fatalities is for parents to start doing what they say they do (but don’t) and actually practice safe driving practices. For many, that is likely easier said than done. It is hard retraining your self to not slip into bad habits, to not reach for that cell phone or hot cup of coffee while driving. However, if you start driving more safely, the only habits your teens are going to form are good ones.

To give you an idea of what teens say about their parent’s driving habits, about 40% have said that they have actually been scared of something their parents did behind the wheel. Multi-tasking is another big problem that parents perpetuate. Is it really important to change the radio, dial a number on the cell phone and drive with your knees? What did drivers do 25 years ago when cell phones weren’t really around?

Part of why teen driving accidents and fatalities occur is that they have not had any formal instruction prior to obtaining their learner’s permit. What they learned was through observation of their parents. Now that is a scary thought! It is almost criminal that about 30% of teens have had not face time with their parents or practical hands-on knowledge of driving behind the wheel. It is pure parental negligence not to provide some sort of informal training, whether you do it yourself or a family friend.

Teens do need to take some responsibility for their actions however. There are countless safe driving campaigns out there so teens at some point are faced with what is safe and what is not in terms of driving practices. Knowing the difference between right and wrong and then doing something wrong anyway is not the best way to earn the privilege of driving. Parents and teens need to establish open dialog and truly work together to create safe driving habits that both can follow.

Teens not imune to car crashes

Real Life Hazards Best Driving Experience for Teens

Having rain in the forecast is sometimes a good thing when teens are taking a defensive driving course like the one the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course offers. It just adds one of the elements of driving conditions that teenagers should be prepared for as they learn to drive, especially defensively.

This defensive driving course is for both parents and teens and it can be quite an eye opener, not only for the new teen drivers but for the experienced parent as well. Teen drivers and their parents are put through the paces with such drills as braking when the roads are wet, changing lanes in an emergency and even how to get out of a skid. For the skid drills, there are special cars that are purposely set up to skid so that the teens can learn what it feels like, the panicky feeling they get when it happens and how to push past all that and come out of the skid safely as possible.

When parents don’t have as much time as they should to teach their teens practical on-the-road driving, this defensive driving course can help fill in some blanks. After all, parents are not likely going to allow their teens to skid or drive in the rain in the family car! However, with the course, the instructors want teens to screw up because it will be in a controlled course and they will learn from the mistakes as well as that of others too.

Parents don’t know everything, although they may pretend that they do with their teenagers. So this defensive driving course is a definite eye opener for both parties. Teenagers will have to deal with situations that the parents will never think of, which can be a bit disconcerting for the grown-ups. In a country where as many as 25-30 teens die every day due to vehicle accidents, adding a driving test to your “resume” is a smart move.

While teens crave the independence that the open road will bring, they will not likely think about any potential road hazards they may encounter. They are thinking about switching the CD in the car or finding the windshield wiper switch. The problem is that one small distraction could cause a situation where an accident can occur. With the defensive driving course, hopefully those lessons will kick in instinctively for teens and avert a disaster.

That is the whole purpose for the defensive driving course. It is but another tool of many in the quest to build a safe teenage driving population. The only thing that would be better is making driver’s education a mandatory class once again in school so that each and every teen will have an equal opportunity to learn safe driving habits.