One in five teens has an accident in the first year of driving — a scary statistic from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Teen drivers crash four times as often as adults, at the rate of about 900,000 accidents per year. And it’s not just their cellphones. Inexperience, speed and fatigue contribute, and two-thirds of fatal teen crashes involve driver error.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and State Farm Insurance Cos. released a study earlier this year that specifies the most common errors by teen drivers that lead to automobile crashes. According to the findings, published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, alcohol accounts for about 16 percent of fatal crashes for 16- and 17-year-old drivers. The other 84 percent of accidents are caused by speeding, being tired, inexperience at the wheel and distractions — including cellphones and peers.
Speed doesn’t just mean going over the speed limit; it can mean going faster than road or weather conditions warrant. “Oftentimes, due to lack of experience, young drivers don’t adjust their speed to account for different driving conditions,” said Jennifer Donovan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles. “For example, taking a curve at 30 miles per hour may be fine when road conditions are dry, but it if it’s raining or snowy, that same curve should be taken at a much lower speed. Young drivers don’t have the experience to assess the situation and react accordingly.”
– State Department of Motor Vehicles: www.nysdmv.com/youngerdriver
– Graduated Driver licensing restrictions: www.dmv.ny.gov/youngerdriver/map.htm
– Automobile Association of America: www.teendriving.aaa.com
– Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm study: www.TeenDriverSource.org
Reasons for crashes
According to the CHOP and State Farm study, 21 percent of crashes occurred because of drivers going too fast for road conditions.
Driving distractions are a risk factor for any driver, but young drivers’ inexperience compounds that risk. Distractions inside and outside the vehicle accounted for 20 percent of the teen crashes analyzed for the study.
Other people in the vehicle can be a distraction. The study concluded that two or more peer passengers more than triples the risk of a fatal crash by a teen driver.
Cellphones — both talking and texting — are huge distractions. Even hands-free phones, as required by state law, take a driver’s attention away from the road.
Inadequate scanning of potential hazards is another cause of crashes (21 percent, according to the study). Due to teens’ inexperience behind the wheel, they are often unable to detect hazards far enough in advance to avoid them. Teens lack the skill to scan far ahead and side-to-side. This is a more advanced skill that drivers develop over time when they feel more comfortable behind the wheel.
Drowsy driving is another reason for teen crashes, and being tired can have effects similar to those of drinking and driving. Drivers under age 25 cause the majority of drowsy-driving related accidents, the study shows.
Another risk factor for teens is not understanding navigation, said Jane Townsend, driver education specialist and vice president of the New York State Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association. Teens should plan their routes and have an idea of how they are going to get to their destinations rather than relying solely on a GPS or trying to figure it out on the road.
Attitude also plays a factor in teen crashes. “There’s a certain ‘I’m invincible’ feeling that they have,” said Eric Stigberg, public affairs manager for AAA Northway. This kind of attitude can lead to less vigilance on the road.
Parents as role models
While awareness of the potential problems for teen drivers is key, the question is what to do about it.
“One of the biggest things that we can do about it is that parents need to be heavily involved right from the get-go in the driving process,” Stigberg said. Parents should model good driving for their teens. When teens are passengers, they are observing their parents’ driving habits.
Parents can put driving rules in place. “It’s important to have very clear expectations and rules for your teen as well as consequences for breaking those rules,” Stigberg said. Some rules might involve the time of day teens are allowed to drive, limiting primary access to vehicles during the first six to 12 months of driving and limiting the number of passengers allowed in the vehicle.
“Research shows that parents who set rules and monitor their teen’s activities in a helpful, supportive way are half as likely to be in a crash than teens who describe their parents as less involved,” Donovan said.
Parents should also spend more time driving with their teens. New York state law now requires 50 hours of supervised driving time, up from 20, before a learner can take the driving test. “Parents should ensure their teens get enough practice behind the wheel in a variety of conditions before allowing them to drive on their own,” Donovan said.
The other critical piece in preventing teen crashes is driver education. Townsend is a huge advocate of school driver education programs and is sad to see many school programs being cut. She encourages parents to lobby for driver education to be part of the school curriculum again.
Driver education is not just about getting a driver’s license. “Many think that the driver-education program is to teach their kids to pass a road test when, in fact, the primary objectives and goals are not just that but really to instill values, attitudes and understanding of the responsibility it will take if they decide to pursue a license,” Townsend said.
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