by Suzanne Koup-Larsen
Teens are the most dangerous group of drivers out there,” warns Ela Voluck, a spokesperson for AAA Mid-Atlantic. Statistics of all kinds back up this statement. In 2007, nearly 5,000 teens died in car crashes. Driving accidents account for about one-third of teenage deaths, by far the largest cause.
“Teens don’t always understand and appreciate the risks of driving,” says Anne McCartt, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s research chief. In fact, the most dangerous period for teen drivers is right after getting their licenses, when they begin to drive without their parents.
Voluck adds that distractions such as cell phones, music and other passengers are big risk factors. “Teens are too immature to focus on anything but the task of driving,” she says.
There is some good news. Although teenagers are still the most dangerous drivers, teen vehicle crash deaths are down 43 percent since 1975. Experts credit new laws designed to reduce high-risk situations for teen drivers.
Help Your Teen To Become a Good Driver
Parents can help teens to be good drivers. Here are suggestions.
Teach driving in all kinds of conditions. Don’t restrict your teen’s driving practice to good conditions. Give your teen lots of instruction and driving practice, at night, in traffic, on highways, on curvy roads, in the city, in rain, snow and fog. Says McCartt, “You don’t want your teen to face his first complicated driving situation when you’re not in the car.”
Be a good role model. Even teens younger than driving age are paying attention to the way you drive, so polish your driving habits as soon as possible. Set a good example by wearing a seat belt and obeying speed limits.
“Young drivers have more trouble with distractions than older drivers, so it’s particularly important to set the example of concentrating on driving while behind the wheel,” says McCartt.
So minimize distractions from electronic devices such as iPods and the car stereo, and certainly from cell phone use, which is illegal for Delaware teen drivers and all drivers in New Jersey. Also keep hands free of food and beverages.
Graduated Driver Licensing
Graduated licensing began in Florida in 1996, and since then has been adapted by most states. The system grants privileges to young drivers gradually, as they develop their skills and work toward the goal of a full license.
There are three stages to the system: a learner’s period with driving only under adult supervision; an intermediate period, after passing the driver’s exam, with risk-reducing restrictions; and full driving privileges.
The intermediate period reduces teen driving risks two ways.
• Time of Day. 9pm6am are the deadliest hours for teen drivers, as crashes are more likely to happen at night. As a result many states impose curfews on new drivers. (See sidebar.) According to Anne McCartt, statistics show that the earlier the curfew starts, the greater the reduction in crashes.
• Age. Research shows the risks of a fatal crash are especially high during the first months of teen driving. The crash rate per mile driven is four times higher for 16- to 19-year-olds than for older drivers. Even compared to 18- and 19-year-old drivers, the crash rate for 16-year-olds is nearly twice as high. As a result, many states are delaying full licensure for six months or a year to allow more maturity and practice time behind the wheel.
Restrictions on Passengers
According to a recent Johns Hopkins University study, the chances of a 16-year-old driver having an accident increase 39 percent with one additional passenger, 86 percent with two additional passengers and 182 percent with three or more passengers.
As a result, many states have restricted passengers for new teen drivers. However, Pennsylvania is one of only 11 states that currently does not place any passenger restrictions on teen drivers, although legislation to restrict teen passengers is under consideration, as is a bill to ban teens from using cell phones while driving.
Graduated licensing rules are difficult for police to enforce. Until now, in New Jersey the onus of enforcement has been on the parents of teen drivers. But a new law that goes into effect in May 2010 requires new drivers age 21 and younger to place decals on their license plates identifying them as novice drivers.
While most states now employ a graduated licensing system, rules vary. Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania teen driving laws all receive a “Good” rating (the highest) from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
While the statistics are daunting, a lot of what it takes to teach teens to be safe behind the wheel is common sense. Just like real estate, where location is the repetitive mantra, for new teen drivers, it’s practice, practice, practice.
Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.
Driving Safety Website
Sometimes teens respond best to advice dispensed online.
Think Before You Drive, a driving safety website created by Bridgestone tires, features games, quizzes, tips for parents and teens, a blog, an e-newsletter and driver safety contract templates for new drivers and their parents. www.thinkbeforeyoudrive.org