Risky driving behavior

Teens and Motor Vehicle Crashes

The tragedy occurred on the last day before summer vacation. An SUV transporting a group of teens to the beach rolled over after a tire blowout. In the aftermath, four teens died, four were hospitalized, and the teen driver faced criminal charges.

Almost everyone knows a distressing story like this one; deaths of teens due to motor vehicle crashes are often well-publicized amid great community sympathy for the loss of young lives and the potential they held, as well as the devastation of surviving parents and friends. And they speak to a larger statistical reality – that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds, according to the National Center for Health Statistics – that much of America seems to be both aware of, but unsure of how to change.

Consider the following statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):

  • There were 202.8 million licensed drivers in the United States in 2006 (2007 data not available). Young drivers between 15 and 20 years old accounted for 6.4 percent (13.0 million) of the total, a 7.2-percent increase from the 12.1 million young drivers in 1996.
  • In 2007, 13 percent (6,982) of all drivers involved in fatal crashes (55,681) were young drivers age 15 to 20 years old, and 15 percent (1,631,000) of all drivers involved in police-reported crashes (10,524,000) were young drivers.
  • In 2007, 3,174 15- to 20-year-old drivers were killed and an additional 252,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes.
  • Among 15- to 20-year-old drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2007, 31 percent of the drivers who were killed had been drinking.
  • In 2007, 64 percent of the young drivers of passenger vehicles involved in fatal crashes who had been drinking were unrestrained. Of the young drivers who had been drinking and were killed in crashes, 75 percent were unrestrained. -During 2007, 35 percent of the motorcycle riders between 15 and 20 years old who were fatally injured in crashes were not wearing helmets.

In addition to mistakes made while driving, teens are susceptible to other lapses in judgment concerning motor vehicles that can lead to injury or death, such as car surfing. According to Science Daily, the states with the highest car-surfing fatality rates are California, Florida, and Texas; all three states have shown an increase in car-surfing deaths since 2000.

Though these three states show high levels of risky teen behavior concerning motor vehicles, a study conducted by Allstate Insurance Company indicated that rural areas have much higher rates of fatal motor vehicle crashes involving teen drivers than metropolitan areas; consequently, states with large rural areas have the highest rates of fatal crashes involving teen drivers. These states are:

    • Mississippi
    • Alabama
    • Kentucky
    • Missouri
    • Arkansas

Nationally, Allstate’s research showed, fatal crash rates for teens were more than twice as high in rural areas than in metropolitan areas.

While considerable attention is paid to the issue of drunk driving among teens, law enforcement agencies report that speeding is the leading cause of motor vehicle crashes involving teen drivers. Allstate’s study found that law enforcement identified speeding as a factor in 34% of motor crashes nationwide, while alcohol was cited in just 12% of crashes.

In addition to the risk teens take when driving or when riding in a vehicle with other teens, teens suffer when a member of their peer group dies in a motor vehicle crash, particularly when they suffer multiple losses from crashes such as the example at the beginning of this article. Because of the feeling of invincibility that is characteristic of this age group, teens typically have not considered the deaths of people their age a possibility, so when such a thing occurs, their world may seem to be crashing down around them. This means that even teens who were not particularly close to the person who died can be stunned by their reaction to it. Due to their level of psychological maturity, teens are ill-equipped to understand the grieving process and may be overwhelmed by feelings of being out-of-control, insecure, and scared, in addition to sorrow and grief. They may descend into melancholy that lasts years, greatly affecting their development. Some teens numb their feelings by participating in high-risk activities such as:

    • Alcohol and drug abuse
    • Reckless sexual activity
    • Withdrawal from family and friends
    • Taking risks involving motor vehicles

Depending on the loss, some teens experience a change in their circle of friends. Obviously, this can have positive or negative results, but regardless, it is another change in a rapidly changing world for the teen. Teens who lose friends to death may see their grades drop and their focus change as they struggle to fit into a new group of friends at a time when they feel especially vulnerable.

Parents and other authority figures can help teens channel their grief in healthier ways by:

    • Being available to listen – not, necessarily, to talk
    • Allowing teens the freedom to process their grief with others, such as friends, extended family, and professional counselors
    • Encouraging teens to express themselves through writing, drawing, and memorializing their deceased friends
    • Realizing that the teens’ mourning process may be prolonged and letting teens know that there is no timetable for grief

Though the federal government, state governments, and community-based organizations are making efforts to reduce the number of teens who die in motor vehicle crashes, the statistics above indicate that there is still much work to be done. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have three-stage Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) programs in which restricted licenses are issued to beginning teen drivers, with the restrictions reduced over time. However, no state has incorporated all of the GDL components recommended by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the National Transportation Safety Board, and NHTSA.

State-level programs that include peer-to-peer teaching and learning about driver safety are effective in reducing teen motor vehicle crash rates. Texas’ Teens in the Driver Seat is one such program; teen crash deaths have dropped 32% and the number of teen drivers involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes is down 33% since the program began. A similar program in Illinois called Operation Teen Safe Driving has helped achieve a 10% reduction in teen motor vehicle fatalities in Illinois during the first seven months of 2009. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and other advocacy groups sponsor many public education campaigns to persuade teens not to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs.