Alarming U.S. statistics compiled by the CDC verify that for teens, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death. The saddest part of this fact is that these deaths are mostly preventable. Despite training and parental warnings about driver safety issues, six teens aged 16 through 19 die every day. They are most at risk, almost three times more apt to die in a motor vehicle crash than drivers over age 20.
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Teen Tragedy on the Roadways
Teens and young drivers ages 15 – 24 make up just 14% of the driver population, but they account for almost double that figure in total costs of motor vehicle injuries. Each day during 2013, according to CDC statistics, 2,163 teens between the ages of 16 to 19 died and 243,243 were injured in motor vehicle accidents. Teens have significantly higher risks and actual crash rates than older drivers.
- Male drivers are twice as likely as females to die in these crashes.
- Teens are most at risk in their first few months of driving.
- When teens also have teen passengers in their vehicle, it increases the risk for being involved in an accident.
Every teen is excited when they finally get their driver’s license. Their parents also are happy, but at the same time, frightened at the prospect of watching their beloved child drive off alone for that first time. It is a known fact that young drivers have a higher incidence proportionately of becoming involved in motor vehicle accidents. For some unfortunate teens, that first drive is also their last drive.
Teen Driving Safety – Major Issues
Several factors contribute to this problem; some are obvious, while other issues are less apparent. Teen driving safety is an important issue for all to consider. Habits formed while young persist into later life; a teen driver that can be influenced to understand this problem is more likely to become a safer driver at all ages.
- Inexperience – Newly licensed teens are at the greatest risk. Teens do not yet have fully developed brains, and this affects their judgment and behavior. They tend to underestimate or not realize the danger of a situation or to predict what might happen and take evasive action. They are more caught up in the fun and thrill of being able to drive a motor vehicle than the cognitive tasks of thinking about safe driving and potential hazards. Experience is a cumulative event; until the teen has had thousands of miles of driving experience, they remain naïve about driver safety.
- Risky Behavior – Despite hearing about how to drive safely in their driver education classes, teens are more likely to engage in risky behavior behind the wheel, as well as in all their other activities. The situation is augmented by the presence of other male passengers; some of the teens are merely trying to impress their friends, but their behavior actually is reckless. They are more likely to speed, take chances, allow insufficient room between their car and one ahead of them, and to move their attention off the road ahead and onto in-car distractions.
- Speed – In 2012, of the fatal crashes that involved young male teen drivers aged 15 through 20, 35% were speeding when the crash occurred. Additional factors that may contribute to the problem of speeding include alcohol. When drinking, the alcohol diminishes good judgment and the driver’s ability to drive safely. Teens may not even realize they are speeding, or they may deliberately put the pedal to the metal to show off to other teen passengers. Street racing is another dangerous activity that teens engage in more often than older drivers.
- Alcohol – Of teen drivers killed in accidents involving excessive speed, 25% of those drivers also had consumed alcohol. Combined with inexperience and youth, alcohol increases risks for teen drivers. Obviously, teen drinkers are breaking alcohol consumption laws in most states, and these teens are more likely to ignore other laws as well, including traffic laws. Teens also reported a high incidence of riding with other teen drivers who had been drinking.
- Passengers – Males are most likely to engage in risky behavior when they are with another male teen. The risk increases with a higher number of passengers. Conversation and other interactions with passengers is a distraction to teen drivers; combined with their low levels of experience, this is a hazardous situation.
- Seat Belts – Not wearing seat belts is common among teen drivers and passengers. In 2013, only 55% of teen passengers reported that they wear seat belts when they ride with someone else. Overall teens have the lowest rate of wearing seat belts.
- Cell Phones/Texting – Vehicle accidents are 23 times more likely to occur when the driver is texting. Teen drivers account for 27% of the total number of drivers involved in fatal crashes due to distracted driving. The problem stems from multiple causes – the driver must use hands, vision and mind to utilize a cell phone or for texting. Even a short, five second lapse in attention away from the task of driving can result in an accident. A car moving at 55mph will cover about the length of a football field in those few seconds. If the teen driver is distracted, the potential for a motor vehicle crash is greatly increased. The problem with texting includes the fact that teens are avid text message users, and they expect fast responses when they send or receive a text message. Although 97% of teens admit texting or sending email messages is dangerous, 43% do it anyways.
- Distractions – There are countless distractions to interfere with the concentration of teen drivers. They already are the most likely age group to have their attention diverted from the road ahead. Add inexperience, unfamiliarity with an area where they are driving, and other distractions like billboard messages, fast food restaurants, passenger chatter, music/sound system noise and their propensity to take risks and the accident rate climbs. The more passengers a teen driver has in their car, the more likely they are to become distracted by the conversations or antics of their teen passengers. Every year in the U.S., motor vehicle accidents due to texting and driving injure or kill almost a half million victims.
- Curfew/Late Hours – Many teens get in accidents because they are hurrying to get home before their curfew. They do not plan ahead enough to make that trip home at safe speeds. Late hours are a teen favorite, but when they drive during nighttime hours, they have additional risks from the late hour as well as being tired out. In 2014, over half of teen deaths in motor vehicle accidents happened between 3pm and 12midnight, and weekend crashes accounted for 54% of teen deaths. Weekend parties contribute to late night driving by teens; those teens may also have been drinking at those weekend events.
No one wants to see their teen driver injured or killed while driving or riding with someone else. No one wants to see their teen driver harm other persons and live with that memory the rest of their lives. Bringing attention to this problem is just the starting point for turning this teen tragedy around. Parents, teachers and friends are the biggest influence in the lives of teen drivers. These experienced drivers – parents, older siblings and grandparents – have the greatest opportunity to train and influence teens by setting a good example while their loved ones are growing up. Law enforcement is a secondary force that can help reduce this high accident rate.
As with any acquired skill, starting early in life is the best way to help teen drivers avoid future problems. Young children love to go riding in the car with their parents, and they absorb information like little sponges. Whether parents realize it or not, their youngsters are watching everything they do, including how they are driving a motor vehicle. The opportunity to be a good example, combined with firm rules about teen driving and government efforts to educate drivers, gives parents a head start on training their teen to be a safe driver every time they get behind the wheel.
- Education – Educational efforts to reduce risky teen driving behavior begins long before driver’s education classes. Teens learn from all other drivers; they may even be involved in accidents riding with other teen drivers. The primary educational tool in this fight for teen driving safety is the official driver’s education program. Parents and government officials need to work together to make sure these programs address this important issue of teen driving safety.
- Graduated Driver Licensing Program – All states have created a graduated driver licensing program (GDL) to help new drivers become familiar with driving skills and hazards. GDL programs offer longer periods for practice and place limitations on high risk conditions for new drivers. The program requires more parental participation. Risk reductions are clearly associated with this program, as teen crash injuries and fatalities among 16 year old drivers were reduced by 38% and 40%, respectively.
- Law Enforcement – Law enforcement agencies set strict rules for teen drivers, in line with local curfew regulations. Parents can enhance this effort by knowing their local and state laws that apply to teen drivers and setting the same rules for their teen drivers. Teens should understand why traffic laws are good and how those laws work to help keep everyone on the road safer.
- No Drinking/Driving – One of the most important rules to set for all drivers, especially new teen age drivers, is no alcohol mixed with driving. Alcohol reduces the driver’s ability to react quickly and make decisions about critical driving skills and to take evasive actions when needed. It increases the teen driver’s risk for being involved in accidents. Too much alcohol can cause a driver to doze off while driving, thus causing harm to themselves, passengers and other persons. States and parents need to enforce minimum legal drinking age laws. Zero blood-alcohol (BAC) tolerance laws applying to drivers under age 21 are recommended, because teen drivers with any level of BAC are more likely to be in motor vehicle crashes.
- Seat Belts – It has been proven that using seat belts saves lives. Serious crash injuries and deaths drop by about half when seat belts are in use. Of all teens killed in passenger vehicle crashes in 2013, about 56% were not wearing a seat belt. Parents can help create this safe driving habit by making young children and other passengers in their vehicle always buckle up.
- Passengers – Teens need to understand that when they have passengers in their vehicle, they are more likely to take risks. This risk rate increases with the number of passengers in the vehicle. Parents can restrict the number of passengers their teen driver is allowed to have with them.
- Parental Example – The impact that parental example has upon children cannot be overstated. Parents set the example for safe driving at all times. Children grow up watching their parents and usually will imitate that same behavior. If a teen sees their parent violating traffic laws, running through stop signs or red lights, making illegal turns, speeding or otherwise exhibiting risky behavior, they are more likely to do the same when they are driving. Parents are teachers in many respects, including safe driving habits.
Making a Difference
The sad statistics associated with teen driving safety can be changed if everyone tries to make a difference. Reducing injuries and fatalities for teen drivers is a challenging goal, and it can be achieved through positive action. As people become aware of the special problems faced by teen drivers, new rules and regulations can be implemented to help lower those tragic numbers.
The best way to fight against teen tragedy on the roadways is to work closely with those new teen drivers. Get involved by being a good example, learn about the laws that apply specifically to teen drivers in your state, and encourage your teen driver to be and set a good example for their friends. Driving safely is no different than any other learned life skill; being a responsible adult and a skillful, safe driver begins in childhood.