Teenagers can’t wait to get their driver’s license. For teens, driving is new, fun, and liberating—a near-obligatory rite of passage. And parents will enjoy the extra time away from personal chauffeur duties, even if they dislike the higher insurance premiums.
Unfortunately, teens and cars are a dangerous combination. Car crashes are still the leading cause of teen deaths.
In honor of National Teen Driver Safety Week, established by Congress in 2007, we are sharing some important information on the teen driving problem and what you can do about it.
The Teen Driver Problem
- Car crashes are the #1 cause of death among teens. In 2015, 2,715 teenagers died in the U.S. from crash injuries. An additional 221,313 teenagers were treated in emergency departments in 2014.
- The crash rate for teen drivers is 3-4x the crash rate for adults. This discrepancy increases at night and when other teens are in the vehicle.
- The crash rate is worst during the first few months of licensure. The risk is highest at age 16.
Furthermore, research shows that the presence of passengers increases the crash risk among teenage drivers but decreases the risk among drivers 30 years and older. One study showed that the presence of peers increased risk taking among adolescents (but not adults) in a simulated driving game. Adolescent decision making is directly influenced by the mere presence of peers as shown in numerous studies of reckless driving, substance abuse, crime, and more.
In addition to being more susceptible to peer pressure than adults, young drivers also have the tendency to overestimate their own driving abilities. Peer pressure combined with poor risk assessment and inexperience makes it difficult for teenagers to drive safely.
Unfortunately, telling teenagers about the risks of the road (“scaring them straight”) may not have an impact. Research has shown that feedback about bad news makes little to no impact on teenagers’ estimates of risk assessment. While adults will alter their estimates of some event occurring based on new information, adolescents have been shown to update their estimates if there is good news, but bad news doesn’t make much of an impact.
As summarized by Robert Sapolsky in his new book, Behave (p. 161):
Researcher: “How likely are you to have a car accident if you’re driving while drunk?” Adolescent: “One chance in a gazillion.”
Researcher: “Actually, the risk is about 50 percent; what do you think your own chances are now?”
Adolescent: “Hey, we’re talking about me; one chance in a gazillion.”
Compared to adults, teenagers are at higher risk of violence, substance abuse, crime, unsafe sex, poor health habits, and automobile crashes and fatalities. These risky behaviors are the greatest threat to teenagers in industrialized societies.
For reasons that have a lot to do with neurobiology and environment, teenagers take a lot more risks and are bad at risk assessment.
What is being done about risky teenage driving?
Teenagers—the odds are against them. Luckily, some changes have been made to help reduce the risk of automobile accidents, such as graduated licensing programs.
These programs have greatly reduced the number of teenage driver crash involvements. While graduated licensing programs vary in strength from state to state, most jurisdictions have some combination of the following restrictions on young drivers:
- Supervised learner’s period
- Learner’s permits and intermediate licenses
- Limitations on high-risk driving (nighttime driving or with teen passengers)
- Higher age limits
In most states, the minimum age for getting a driver’s age is 16, although it can be as low as 14 years or as high as 17 years. In Tennessee and Georgia, the minimum age is 16, with restrictions on nighttime driving and passengers. View the graduated licensing requirements and restrictions for every state.
Graduated driving programs have been proven to quite effective, especially strong nighttime driving and teenage passenger restrictions. In addition to better graduated licensing programs, what can be done to reduce the number of teenage automobile accidents and fatalities?
Ways to Increase Teen Driver Safety
Regardless of state law, it’s a good idea to follow these best practices:
- Wait until your teen is 17 years old to get a license (risk is highest at age 16).
- Enforce all graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws and set stricter standards, such as at least 70 hours of supervised practice driving with an experienced adult driver.
- During first 12 months of driving, enforce nighttime driving restrictions starting at 8 p.m. and a ban on all non-adult passengers.
- Consider in-vehicle monitoring devices which can give feedback parents on speeding, seatbelt use, and more.
- Be a good role model (no phone use, no speeding, etc.) and ride with them frequently.
- Teach your teen driver to stay at least 2 seconds (3-4 seconds in unsafe conditions) behind the vehicle in front. Mark a fixed point on the road, and after the car ahead passes it, it should take you at least 2 seconds to reach that same point.
- Obey traffic signs, wear your seatbelt, eyes on the road, and hands on the wheel. All the time.
- Use safer cars (electronic stability control, key safety features, and bigger, heavier, and newer vehicles).
- Even though every state has a minimum alcohol purchasing age of 21, teach your teenage drivers the importance of never getting into a car with a driver who has had even one drink. It is illegal to drink under the age of 21, so the BAC level should always be .00.
- Texting, calling, and other phone-related distractions present the greatest increase in crash risk for teen drivers.
- Ensure your teen driver(s) get the proper sleep they need to drive safely.
- Set written guidelines for your teenage driver and make them sign it. No alcohol, no passengers, no nighttime driving, no speeding, no phone use, and always buckle up. There should be clear penalties for each violation of the terms. There should also be clear rewards, such as a 6-month incident-free period. For every 6-months of safe driving, you may want to increase some driving privileges. Make sure you discuss and enforce the consequences of noncompliance.
Be a good example!
Teens learn how to drive from their parents. They will quickly learn to ignore the rules if you ignore them yourself. In today’s world, the most important rule you should always follow, especially in front of your kids is to never use your phone while in transit.
Never use your phone while driving! Pull over if you need to text, call, use social media, or interact with your phone in any way, such as typing in new directions, make sure you pull over or come to a complete stop first.
Ironically, studies have shown that driver education programs may not be effective, at least in the short term. Studies have shown that advanced driver training may actually increase the risk of automobile accidents, especially among young males. Driver education programs may lead to overconfidence and the taking of unnecessary risks.
What are the safest vehicles for teenagers?
Understandably, teenagers tend to drive older-model vehicles that are already in the family. A study by the Institute of Highway Safety found that 43% of teenagers surveyed were driving vehicles that were purchased when they began driving and that 83% of the vehicles that were purchased were used.
While it makes sense not to spend a small fortune on your first car, it also makes sense to choose the safest vehicle in your budget. A separate Institute study showed that the risk of collisions and fatalities increases when teenagers are driving sports cars or small vehicles.
In order to choose the safest vehicle for your teenager(s), keep in mind the following purchasing guidelines:
- Stay away from sports cars and high-horsepower vehicles, which encourages teens to speed and show off in the presence of peers.
- Choose bigger, heavier vehicles with more safety features. No small cars or minicars are recommended for teenage drivers.
- Look for seatbelt reminder systems for every seat in the car.
- Electronic stability control (ESC), also known as electronic stability program (ESP) or dynamic stability control (DSC) is an absolute must for detecting and reducing skidding and the loss of traction.
- Look up crash test, rollover assistance, and other car safety ratings on Consumer Reports and other resources to choose the best safety ratings that you can.
- Make sure the vehicle has working airbags. Look for head-protecting side airbags.
- Search NHTSA’s 5-Star Safety Ratings to make sure your vehicle has a minimum 4-star rating.
- If you can afford a newer model car, look for forward-collision warning (FCW), automatic emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot warning (BSW), and rearview cameras.
Visit CDC.gov for more information on teen driving statistics, risk factors, and prevention.
Take the time during National Teen Driver Safety Week to decrease the chances of your teen turning into a statistic. In addition to being a good example behind the wheel, write up a contract with rewards and punishments. You have a lot more influence than you think.
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