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Teen Driver Safety: Critical Errors that Lead to Serious Accidents

Research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) indicates that teen drivers are almost three times more likely to be killed in motor-vehicle crashes than those who are 20 or older. And the younger the person behind the wheel, the worse the numbers look: Drivers aged 16-17 have a fatal crash rate that’s nearly twice as high as those that are between 18 and 19. Moreover, for the first time since the IIHS began posting data about teen driving deaths in 2005, its most recently published annual statistics show an increase in fatalities. The goal of National Teen Driver Safety Week – which runs through October 22 – is to help get those trends moving in the other direction.

Teen Drivers and Smartphones: A Dumb Combination

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tracks the number of fatal crashes with its Fatality Analysis Reporting System. The most recent data covers 2014, and according to this data, more than 2,600 teenagers died in motor vehicle crashes that year.

TeenDriverSource.org reports that another 243,000 were injured enough to be treated at hospitals. At the same time, it’s just three “critical errors” that lead to 75 percent of all serious teen driving crashes: drivers failing to adequately scan their surroundings, going too fast for the road conditions, and getting distracted.

Of course, there’s one distraction that does seem to be worse than others, and that’s the driver’s smartphone. Consider: Just this month, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute blogged results from a three-year study in which sensors and cameras had been installed in teen’s cars, to look at how they drive in real-world situations. What they found was that roughly one third of the teen drivers who crashed were actively using their phones at the time. About half of those drivers were texting. Engineer and study co-author James N. Megariotis wrote that “teens not only crash more frequently than adults, but also experience significantly more severe crashes at much higher speeds.”

Teens and Impaired Driving

Although teens generally don’t drink and drive as often as adults, TeenDriverSource.org says those that do make up some 27 percent of the annual crash deaths for individuals aged 16 to 20. Also, while 90 percent of teens surveyed said they “rarely or never” drive while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, 50 percent said they saw other teens drive while drinking, and 41 percent reported seeing other teens drive after smoking marijuana.

A more significant issue for teen drivers may be impairments caused by lack of sleep, especially since being awake 18 straight hours can have the same effect on them as a blood alcohol concentration level of 0.08.

Yet Stanford University experts say that teen sleep deprivation has reached “epidemic” levels in this country, and one national poll noted that 87 percent of U.S. high school students receive “far less” than the recommended amount of sleep each night.

Indeed, TeenDriverSource.org also advises that young drivers need more than 9 hours of sleep each night for optimum driving alertness during the day. Teens who get less than 8 hours are one-third more likely to get into a car crash.

Teen Drivers and Peer Pressure

Having additional teen passengers in the car then adds to the risk of a crash. Thus, when a teen driver has two or more teen friends in the vehicle, a fatal crash is three times more likely to occur. There are differences between female and male teens, too. The statistics from TeenDriverSource.org show that both were distracted before crashing at approximately similar rates. But girls were four times more likely to be distracted with passengers in the vehicle than if they were driving alone. Boys were six times more likely to make an illegal driving maneuver with friends in the car, and twice as likely to have “acted aggressively.”

What You Can Do

TeenDriverSource.org provides resources for adults as well as teens, with information tailored toward educators, researchers, policymakers and parents and guardians. For example, if you have teen drivers of your own, provide them with ongoing support to develop good habits.

Setting ground rules and making sure they’re followed is particularly effective, based on a recent National Young Driver Survey. In that report, teens with involved, “authoritative” parents were 70 percent less likely to drink and drive, 50 percent less likely to speed, 30 percent less likely to use a phone while driving and twice as likely to wear their seatbelts. But stay positive, as trying to scare teen drivers into better behavior “rarely works,” and they may end up either feeling overwhelmed or tuning you out entirely.

What the Automakers Are Doing

It’s also worth pointing out that a growing number of automakers are launching new technologies specifically engineered with teen driver safety in mind. These systems already are available from the likes of Ford, Chevrolet and Hyundai, and they offer a variety of strategies to encourage safer driving, including the ability to limit the vehicle’s top speed and audio volume. Others can alert owners with text messages if the vehicle leaves a certain geographical area, or prevent key safety features from being deactivated. In-car alerts also can be set to remind drivers to use their seatbelts and to provide a longer advanced warning before running out of fuel.

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