Teens Behind The Wheel

 – By Chris Wagner
©2005, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

A driver’s license—for teenagers it’s a ticket to freedom, a big step on their way to adulthood, and a first taste of independence. Teens with a driver’s license and a set of car keys—for the first time in their lives—can venture out on their own, no longer relying on mom, dad, or big brother or sister to shuttle them from one place to another. Months earlier you couldn’t get your teenager off the couch. But with their newly acquired access to mobility, it becomes difficult to keep them in the driveway.

Freedom always comes at a price and with increased responsibility. Literal costs include expenses like car insurance, gas, tolls and possibly even a new vehicle. Having access to new things and new places, being behind the wheel of the family car, or driving yourself to a new job all result in added responsibility.

All that said, the reality is that many teens may not be ready for the responsibility that comes along with having a newly acquired driver’s license. In a 2004 study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, researchers McCarthy and Brown report that in the period immediately after obtaining their license, teens are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as drinking and smoking marijuana. This should be a warning to parents to keep an extra-close and diligent watch on their teen’s behavior during this time. With the ability to travel to new places and meet new people, teenagers gain easier access to many worrisome situations.

The saddest reality however, is that the price paid by a new teen driver is all too often their own life, the lives of their passengers or the lives of those in another car. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year-olds in theUnited States. The National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA) reports “in 2003, 3,657 drivers 15-20 years old were killed, and an additional 308,000 were injured, in motor vehicle crashes.”

It is ultimately up to the licensed teen to drive safely but there are a number of factors that lead to a higher rate of accidents and deaths among this age group. Before blindly handing your keys over to your new driver, here are several risk factors parents and their new teen drivers should discuss together:

Inexperience—Teen drivers are far less experienced behind the wheel. As a result, they are less likely to react to unusual driving circumstances in necessary time and the correct manner. They also often underestimate hazardous situations. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that “compared with crashes of older drivers, those of 16-year-olds more often involve driver error.” Not surprisingly, that age group also has the highest accident rate per mile driven. Practice may not ever make for perfect drivers, but it is a big help.

Risk seeking—One aspect of adolescence that hasn’t changed since parents were teenagers themselves is that teens still believe they are invincible and invulnerable. An “invincible” teen and car keys can be a deadly combination. Young and immature drivers often deliberately seek out dangerous situations. The exhilaration of a “close call” inspires them to push limits even farther. In 2004, the National Institute for Mental Health found that late adolescents have yet to fully develop the part of the brain that moderates risk taking. Young drivers are more likely to tailgate, speed and change lanes quickly without realizing the danger.

Speeding—Teens feel the need for speed. According to the IHHS, “16 year-old drivers have a higher rate of crashes in which excessive speed is a factor.” Among fatal crashes from 1983-2002, the proportion of drivers who were speeding was highest among 15- to 20-year-olds (nearly 40 percent), and higher than any other age group (NCSA). Since the advent of muscle cars, teens have been drawn toward power and speed. Today’s lighter, smaller and faster cars allow teens to reach incredibly dangerous speeds while leaving them with very little protection. Police report catching teens driving in excess of 180 MPH. Air bags and other safety devices are rendered useless at such speeds. A survey of California teens found that young drivers only felt as though they were speeding when driving 90+ MPH. Movies and countless auto racing video games such as Burnout andNeed for Speed may also fuel the fire and encourage teens to put the pedal to the metal.

Street racing—What the film American Graffiti did to help an earlier generation of teens rediscover drag racing, The Fast and the Furious and its sequel did to ignite interest in street racing among today’s new breed of young, import driving, thrill-seeking teens. Long popular in California, street racing has become influential across the nation. Street racing was listed as a factor in 135 fatal crashes in 2001 (the same year The Fast and the Furious was released), nearly double the amount in 2000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It’s a stretch to suggest that media has little or no impact on teen behavior. While the number of teens who participate in street racing is difficult to quantify, evidence of the growing popularity of the street racing culture is hard to ignore. Drivers modify their cars to improve performance, speed and acceleration. Modifications include spoilers, computer chips, turbochargers and even nitrous-oxide kits. However, as one fatally injured teen’s mother says, “You don’t have to have a souped-up car to drive fast.”

Underage/unlicensed driving—The Children’s Safety Network reported 2,452 fatal crashes involving unlicensed young drivers from 1998-2002. This astonishing figure points to the fact that many more underage and unlicensed drivers are now on the road. Recent teen movies such as Sleepover have glorified underage driving. The article, “The Young and the Reckless,” in the July 2005 edition of Good Housekeeping magazine reports that many parents actually allow and encourage this behavior! A goodhousekeeping.com survey offered these results: “75 percent of people said they or their friends had driven a car before they were licensed, 53 percent of parents said they knew their kids had driven without a license, and 44 percent of parents said they allowed their unlicensed teenager to drive.”

Drunk driving—The statistics about drunk driving among our young (who are, by the way, drinking illegally) prove truly troubling. NHTSA reports that of 15- to 20-year-old drivers killed in crashes in 2003, 31 percent had been drinking. MADD states, “In 2001, 2.8 million college students drove a car while under the influence of alcohol.” According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 17 percent of all people ages 16-20 reported driving under the influence of alcohol. Only 4 percent were arrested and booked. Drunk driving among young male drivers is much higher than among females. Parents, be aware that passengers are at great risk as well. A national survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports three out of 10 teens had ridden with a drunk driver within the previous month.

Drugged drivingMonitoring the Future, an ongoing study tracking trends in teen drug and alcohol use, reveals that one in six high school seniors admitted to driving under the influence of marijuana. High school seniors driving under the influence of marijuana caused about 38,000 accidents in 2001 alone. While marijuana use is highest, other illicit drugs are used behind the wheel as well. Stephen Wallace, CEO of SADD, says, “many (teens) believe that driving under the influence of marijuana poses little risk of impaired operation.” Some 41 percent of teens aren’t worried about driving after using illegal drugs according to a SADD/Liberty Mutual poll. Among teens who regularly use drugs, 57 percent say they would have no problem riding as a passenger in a drugged driver’s car, and 68 percent admit to driving under the influence themselves.

Cell phone use—It seems everyone is driving with one hand on the wheel, while talking on their cell phone with the other. The IIHS states that “drivers using phones are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves.” Consider how often teens use their cell phones, along with their inexperience as drivers, and you have an increasingly dangerous situation. Some 62 percent of teens admitted to talking on a cell phone while driving (SADD/Liberty Mutual). Even hands-free devices won’t help. Data comparing hands-free vs. hand-held use shows an insignificant difference in injury crash risk.

Nighttime driving—Teens who drive at night are at much greater risk. According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, “42 percent of teenagers’ fatalities occurred between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.” Data also shows that crashes and fatalities are highest on the weekends.

Teen passengers—According to the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, 65 percent of teen passenger deaths occur when another teenager is driving. Males driving with male passengers are the most dangerous combination. In addition, crash rates increase significantly as the number of passengers increase. Russ Rader, a spokesman for the IIHS says, “When you have a teen passenger in the vehicle with a teen driver, the risk of a crash is twice as high, if you have two or more teen passengers … the risk can be five times as high.”

Seatbelt use—Too many teens fail to use seatbelts. Many lives could have been saved with the click of the buckle. According to the CDC, teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use. An estimated one-third of teen drivers fail to buckle up.

What can parents do?

Parents play a major role in how safe their teen driver is while out on the road. Driver’s education classes have been shown to do little in producing safer drivers. Of course, driving lessons provide valuable experience and classes will certainly not hurt. However, teens themselves say that parents influence their driving habits the most.

Model safe driving habits. Children of all ages are paying attention. It’s not fair to expect a newly licensed driver to obey the traffic laws if parents don’t follow laws themselves. Set positive examples by not using a cell phone while driving. Come to a complete stop at stop signs. Obey the speed limit. These little measures will go a long way in helping your teen notice and inherit safe driving skills.

Practice driving with your son or daughter. What a great opportunity to spend time with your kids! Offering to take your teen driving will provide occasions for talking with your teenager and finding out what’s going on in their life, all while providing them with valuable driving experience that will lower their chances of having an accident.

Familiarize yourself with local and state laws for young drivers, but don’t rely solely on them. Don’t expect police to parent your licensed teen. Crash rates and citations are highest in the first month a newly licensed teen is able to drive unsupervised. As a result, most states now enforce some sort of graduated licensing laws. Under these programs young drivers have restrictions set on them based upon age and driving experience. Full unsupervised privileges are not granted until certain requirements are met. Even if your state does not follow these methods, use them as a model for the personal guidelines set in your home.

Discuss what constitutes dangerous and risky driving with your teen. Set very clear rules and enforce consequences when they’re broken. Rules may include limiting nighttime driving or restricting the number of teen passengers you will allow when your son or daughter is driving. Others may consist of banning cell phone use or setting a volume limit in the car stereo in order to reduce distractions that cause an increase in accidents. Also require seat-belt use and enforce a strict zero-tolerance policy toward alcohol. Studies suggest that when parents and teens are on the same page about driving expectations, teens are much safer drivers.

Take other practical steps to equip your teen for a safe driving experience. Only allow your teen to drive cars that are safe. Though popular, many small sports cars are not the safest. Even SUV’s can be dangerous. They allow room for more passengers, and inexperienced drivers are more prone to roll them over. Don’t allow your teen to purchase performance-enhancing modifications for the purpose of increasing their car’s top speed. Making teens pay for their own insurance as well as any citations “earned” will encourage them to obey traffic laws. Check the odometer now and then to find out if your adolescent is going where they say they’re going. Enforce punishments when rules have been broken. Sometimes taking away the keys can be very effective.

Finally, teach and reinforce the sanctity of human life. Driving dangerously puts teen drivers, passengers and others on the road at risk. Encourage teens to value human life as God does. Sadly, not all accidents can be avoided, but lives can be saved as a result of safer driving among today’s teens.


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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.