Youth and Driving Don't Always Mix Safely

SATURDAY May 23, 2009 -- Teen drivers are more likely than adults to crash their car, due to their youth and inexperience -- but don't try telling them that.

Studies have found that teens have an overblown sense of their driving prowess, one that can and does put them in the middle of some truly terrible crashes. They also don't understand that distractions such as cell phones and teenage passengers can make driving more dangerous.

"Kids tend to judge their experience on getting a license," said Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "The truth is that getting a driver's license is the very first step to gaining experience."

It's an established fact that young drivers crash more often than older drivers, and with worse consequences. People between 15 and 24 years old represent just 14 percent of the United States population, but they account for 30 percent of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among males and 28 percent among females, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2005, 4,544 teens ages 16 to 19 died of injuries incurred in crashes, the CDC says. That same year, nearly 400,000 teenage passengers or drivers of vehicles involved in crashes sustained injuries severe enough to require treatment in an emergency department.

"A new driver at any age is going to have a higher crash rate, but with teenagers, you're combining that experience deficit with immaturity and risk-taking," said Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Ginsburg headed a study that asked high-school students their opinions of a number of risky driving situations. Sixty percent of the students said that driving experience was very important, but only 15 percent said they had ridden with inexperienced drivers.

Most of the kids in Ginsburg's study didn't understand that cell phones could be a distraction to a driver. They also didn't realize that having other teenage passengers in the car posed a safety risk -- a troubling statistic given that two of every three teen drivers surveyed said they often traveled with teen passengers.

"Passengers for older drivers can be neutral or even beneficial, but when teen drivers have teen passengers, they are more likely to crash," McCartt said. "That's likely due to distraction passengers bring to the vehicle, and an increased propensity to take risks."

Another study, this one in Canada, found that high-school students tend to harbor mistaken beliefs that lead them to underestimate the risks of driving. The teens in that study believed that:

  • Their youth and agility make them better able than more experienced drivers to overcome poor driving conditions or intoxication.
  • Vehicle problems and highway design are more likely than human error to cause crashes.
  • If they were in a crash, doctors would be able to save their lives and bring them completely back to normal.

But the study did contain some bits of good news as well. Teenagers seemed to understand that drinking and driving were a bad mix, Ginsburg said.

"Substances are used by a relatively few kids, because they've heard that message, and they get what the risk is," he said. "On the other hand, having passengers in the car and talking on cell phones happens more frequently, and they're all distractions."

Ginsburg said that parents need to take a role in disabusing their kids of wrong notions about driving.

"Parents matter," he said. "Parents are the ones in charge of making sure kids follow restrictions and graduated driving laws. The challenge is for parents to make clear that these restrictions aren't about control, they're about safety, and they come from a place of love."

McCartt's group has recommended a tougher solution: Raise the driving age to 17 or 18. She points to New Jersey, which is the only state that issues licenses at 17 and which has a consistently lower rate of teen deaths in car crashes than its neighboring states.

"Teen drivers are not good at even identifying whether something's risky or not," McCartt said. "The evidence from New Jersey suggests other states would benefit substantially from increasing the age at which teens get their license."

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have more on the risks of teen driving.

Posted: May 2009


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