To parents about to turn over the keys to the car to their son or daughter, be aware that accident and driving fatality numbers are staggering. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, motor vehicle fatality is the leading cause of death among teenagers, representing over one-third of all deaths. So as a parent of teenagers — and I’ve been the parent of three — whenever you let your children take the car keys you have to wonder if you are doing the right thing. Are you offering the freedom of personal mobility or handing them a grenade that is ready to go off?
While that fear will probably always be with you, there are ways to improve your teenager’s ability to avoid being involved in a tragic traffic accident. Despite the fact the statistics are sobering and should evoke concern, there is some good news as well. In 2017 (the most recent year for reliable stats) 1,830 young drivers 15 to 20 years old died in motor vehicle crashes. That’s a large number, but on the positive side it represented a 4% decrease in fatalities versus the 1,916 young drivers who died in 2016. Overall, auto-related deaths of teenagers have been trending steadily downward over the past decade. At the same time, teenaged drivers are more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than their percentage of all drivers would suggest. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 8.3% of all drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2017 were young drivers, but young drivers represented only 5.4% of all licensed drivers.
A Real Problem
So the problem of teenaged driver safety is real. The good news is that the dangers are well-identified and the responses that can lead to a further lessening of auto-related teenage deaths are understood. First off, it is critical to recognize that teen drivers as a group behave differently than other members of the driving community. As NHTSA put it succinctly, “One thing is certain: teens aren’t ready to have the same level of driving responsibility as adults.” Just as inexperienced gardeners, carpenters, watchmakers, and surgeons make more errors than their more experienced brethren, so too do inexperienced drivers. When you add to that inexperience distractions, impulsive behavior, and sheer tiredness, the situation can become that much worse. A combined understanding of the risks and responsibilities of driving are critical to lowering teen fatality rate.
In 2017, 297 people died in crashes that involved distracted teen drivers, and 271 teen drivers involved in fatal crashes were distracted. The stats provide ample evidence that teens are more susceptible to distraction behind the wheel than are typical drivers. The ubiquitous cellphone plays a big role in this. One in three teens who text tell researchers they have done so while driving, and texting is highly distracting and dangerous. NHTSA says that texting while driving increases the risk of having a crash by 23 times. But texting isn’t the only distraction. Dialing a phone number increases a teen’s risk of crashing six times. Eating, drinking, applying makeup, and adjusting the audio system are also important sources of potentially hazardous distraction.
But those pale in comparison to the dangerous distraction — and sometimes bad influences — caused by having passengers in the car. NHTSA says teen drivers are two-and-a-half times more likely to engage in potentially risky behaviors when driving with one teenage peer compared to when driving alone. In fact, the research shows that the risk of a fatal crash goes up in direct relation to the number of teenagers in the car. These statistics are key reasons that many states’ graduated driver’s licensing laws prohibit recently licensed drivers from transporting passengers in their vehicles.
Driving too rapidly for conditions is a critical safety issue for teen drivers, according to NHTSA analysis. In 2016, speeding was a factor in 32 percent of the fatal passenger-vehicle crashes that involved teen drivers. Research suggests teens appear to gain confidence (perhaps overconfidence) in their driving abilities quickly over time, leading to increased speeding. This behavior combined with inclement weather can be especially dangerous. Due to lack of experience, many teens don’t appropriately slow down when driving conditions become more difficult.
Statistics show that speeding among teens is a major problem. NHTSA considers a crash to be speeding-related if any driver in the crash was charged with a speeding-related offense or if a police officer indicated that racing, driving too fast for conditions, or exceeding the posted speed limit was a contributing factor in the crash. Using these parameters teen drivers engaged in more of these behaviors than any other age group. Males are more likely to speed than females — 31% of male teenagers were speeding at the time they were involved in a crash, but 18% of females involved in crashes were speeding. In comparison only 19% of males 35-44 were speeding when involved in a crash and just 12% of females in the same age group.
Impairment — Drugs and Alcohol
Drinking alcohol under the age of 21 is illegal in every state—inside or outside of a vehicle — but a high percentage of teens involved in crashes were impaired by drinking. According to NHTSA stats, 24% of the young drivers 15 to 20 years old who were killed in crashes had blood alcohol levels of .01 g/dL or higher, and 20% had blood alcohol contents of .08 g/dL or higher, above the legal limit for those who are allowed to consume alcohol legally. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teens are more likely than anyone else to be killed in an alcohol-related crash.
To listen to the America on the Road podcast featuring an interview with Mercury Insurance’s Kevin Quinn on teen driving safety click here.
Because of the danger involved, drunk-driving laws are strictly enforced, and many states have zero-tolerance laws for alcohol or drugs in the system of teen drivers. That means that any trace of alcohol or illegal drugs in their system while driving can have very serious ramifications. Beyond the legal penalties is the fact that drinking and drug use seriously impair one’s ability to drive a motor vehicle safely. Both illicit and legally obtained prescription drugs can be as dangerous as alcohol in their ability to diminish driving abilities and impair judgment.
While drinking and driving is an issue that has been associated with teen driving for decades, another form of impairment — drowsiness — is just now becoming well understood. And because teens are busier than ever, drowsy driving disproportionately affects them. In 2016, teen drivers accounted for about one out of every 10 fatal drowsy driving crashes. The dangers of drowsy driving include more than simply falling asleep at the wheel. Drowsiness affects a driver’s alertness, attention, reaction time, judgment, and decision-making capabilities. At particular risk are those who sleep less than six hours a night, drive on rural roads, and/or who drive between midnight and 6 a.m. A teen driving at night runs the risk of drowsiness combined with the lack of visibility caused by darkness. The combination can be deadly.
Seat Belt Use
While many teens seem to be well aware of the dangers of smoking cigarettes, apparently they have not gotten the word on seat belts. Numerous studies have shown that seat belt use is lowest among teen drivers. This has tragic results — the majority of teenagers involved in fatal crashes were not wearing their seat belts. According to NHTSA, in 2016, a total of 818 teen drivers and 569 passengers died in passenger vehicles driven by teen drivers, and 58 percent of those passengers were not wearing their seat belts at the time of the fatal crash. This is especially tragic because a high percentage of these deaths would have been prevented if only the drivers and passengers had buckled up.
What To Do
In virtually all areas of their lives many teens have the sense that they are invincible, that nothing can hurt them. But particularly in the case of driving, teens are much more vulnerable than they think. Each time they get behind the wheel they might be confronted by driving conditions they have never experienced. You should be explicit in making certain your teen drivers know this.
To combat all the ills cataloged above nothing is more important than having a good role model. If teens see their parents speed, drive after drinking and fail to buckle their seat belts they are very likely to emulate these behaviors. That means the example you provide and the rules you set as a parent are of critical importance in enabling your teen driver to avoid the dangers that are out there every day.
Teens take on a heavy responsibility whenever they get behind the wheel of a car, but parents also have a heavy responsibility in establishing driving rules, monitoring behavior, and making certain that the examples they set are the proper ones to inspire safety in their teen drivers.
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