Teens and driving


Of all the bad news that comes across our desks each day, the worst is the death or injury of a teenager in a car crash.

Most recently, an 18-year old male from Whitingham died behind the wheel in Rowe, Mass., and a 16-year-old, also a male, sustained serious head injuries in a crash in Townshend.

Both incidents are still under investigation.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2010, seven teens ages 16 to 19 died every day from injuries sustained in motor-vehicle crashes. Another 282,000 were treated for their injuries.

Per mile driven, drivers between the ages 16 to 19 are three times more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash.

While young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 represent only 14 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 30 percent of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries for males ($19 billion) and 28 percent for females ($7 billion), according to the CDC. According to the Highway Safety Research Council, there are a number of reasons why members of this age group is at a greater risk.

They include inexperience, impulsiveness, the time of the day they drive, the fact that they often have passengers of the same age group, alcohol and drugs and distraction.

"The majority of novice drivers do not have sufficient practical experience to handle the complex task of driving when they are first licensed," states the HSRC. Standard driver education courses are only able to provide a minuscule amount of driving practice -- not even enough for novice drivers to become minimally competent, much less proficient. A substantial amount of actual driving practice, in a variety of situations, is necessary before proficiency can be developed."

HSRC notes that crash rates are high in the first few months of driving, but after a couple of years, they start to drop.

"One study found a statistically reliable decrease in crash rates among teens who amassed an average of about 110 hours of supervised driving practice before obtaining a license. Lack of driving experience contributes to young drivers’ inability to consistently recognize the conditions that are risky when driving."

And we all know, perhaps from our own experience, that members of that age group are especially impulsive, often to the detriment of their own physical and mental well-being as well as to those around them. "By virtue of their continuing cognitive, social, emotional and biological development, young drivers -- especially 16-year-olds -- tend to engage in impulsive behaviors," notes HSRC.

And to make matters worse, when a teen is with members of his peer group, he or she can react impulsively without heed for his or her own or others’ safety in an attempt to impress or fit in.

Those impulsive behaviors include the decision not to wear a seatbelt -- a habit that has proven over and over again to save lives -- and the desire to go fast.

HSRC notes that many teens do more of their driving at night and with multiple passengers, which substantially increase the likelihood of a crash.

"The vast majority (more than 80 percent) of nighttime crashes among 16- and 17- year-old drivers occur between the hours of 9 p.m. and midnight," notes the HSRC.

Some states are prohibiting young drivers driving at night and are limiting the number of young passengers they can take along for the ride for the first six months after receiving a license.

And though we don’t need a study to tell us this, research indicates that young drivers are more easily distracted than experienced drivers, especially in this age when we are all so connected to each other and the Internet via personal mobile devices.

"This is particularly problematic since less experienced drivers are not yet equipped to deal effectively with the multiple cognitive activities involved in driving even without the interference of distractions that divert their attention," notes the HSRC. According to a study conducted by The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance of the nearly 10,000 child passengers in the study who were killed in car crashes, more than half of them were riding in cars with a teen driver and more than three-fourths of the fatal crashes occurred on roads with speed limits higher than 45 mph.

ABC News decided to conduct its own, non-scientific study and put some teen drivers to the test.

"First, texting was brought into the mix. As (the driver) read a text, she jerked the wheel and hit the course cones. When friends were brought in as backseat passengers, the distraction proved too much for (her), who hit more cones. Even eating brought problems. As (she) handed cookies to her passengers, she hit additional cones on the course.

"Those cones could have been people, and when you’re distracted, you aren’t able to avoid those cones or whatever they may be," said the driver.

Despite the anxiety of seeing your children drive off in their own or the family car, there are a number of things a parent can do short of becoming their chauffeur. Insurance companies, which surely have a stake in this game, such as Liberty Mutual and Allstate, offer online resources that give parents the tools they need to be good driving mentors.

But the first, and perhaps the most important, thing you can do is be a good role model. If you text while driving, talk unnecessarily on the phone, munch on food or snacks, engage in aggressive behaviors or rage at traffic, don’t be surprised if your offspring follow your lead.

While there are plenty of good driving courses out there, teenagers can also learn from a responsible adult, such as a parent, who can teach them the rules of the road, how to be courteous and the laws of each state. Parents should also be willing to let their teens get behind the wheel and advise, with patience and thoughtfulness, from the passenger seat.

This includes giving lessons on parking, pulling out of and into traffic, and driving under a variety of different lighting and weather conditions.

Besides being a good role model and mentor, we believe the No. 1 tactic a parent can take to protect their newly licensed teenager is to impart to them how important they are to us and how much we love them. Tell them each and every day they are precious and our mission in life is to help them grow into healthy, responsible adults. Sometimes this means having to be the boss, but that’s a parent’s job. We are here not to raise children, as Louis CK recently said, but to raise them to be the kinds of adults we can be proud of.

~ Brattleboro Reformer


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