Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Dangers of Teen Driving

Teen Driving Statistics

Motor vehicle crashes are currently the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. In 2010, seven teens ages 16 to 19 died every day from motor vehicle injuries. Per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are three times more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash. 2,700 teens in the United States were killed in 2010, and around 282,000 were treated and released from emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor-vehicle crashes. Fortunately these crashes can be prevented and there are proven strategies that can improve the safety of young drivers on the road.

Young people ages 15-24 represent only 14% of the U.S. population, yet they account for 30% ($19 billion) of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among females. The motor vehicle death rate for male drivers and passengers ages 16 to 19 was almost two times that of their female counterparts. These statistics can be due to a variety of factors.

For one thing, teens are more likely to underestimate dangerous situations. Older drivers know the risks associated with certain maneuvers and behaviors on the road, and many teens don’t have the experience or reflexes to recognize hazardous situations as easily, giving them less response time. Teens are also more likely to keep less distance on the road as well as less likely to wear seat belts. Another cause that may only seem relevant to drivers 21 and up is unfortunately very relevant to teens. Among male drivers between the ages of 15 to 20 years old who were involved in fatal crashes in 2010, 39% were speeding at the time of the crash and 25% had been drinking. At all levels of blood alcohol concentration, the risk of involvement in a motor vehicle crash is greater for teens than for older drivers. In 2010, 22% of drivers aged 15 to 20 involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes were drinking. In a national survey conducted in 2011, 24% of teens reported that, within the previous month, they had ridden with a driver who had been drinking alcohol and 8% reported having driven after drinking alcohol within the same one-month period.

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Here is an excerpt taken from a Reader’s Digest article, "Special Report: The Dangers of Teen Driving – Car crashes are the No. 1 killer of teens. It’s time to take action":

Kylie Grayden, 17, of Shorewood, Minnesota, glanced at her iPod while driving with her cousin and a friend, both 17. When she veered off the road and flipped her car into a ditch, she and her friend were killed. Heading home from practice, Jonathan Chapman, a 16-year-old high school basketball player from La Plata, Maryland, was reportedly speeding when his car rammed an SUV. He and three friends, ages 14 to 16, were killed. Five days after graduating from high school, Bailey Goodman, 17, of Fairport, New York, and four classmates were on their way to her family’s cottage. Moments after text messages were exchanged on Bailey’s cell phone, she slammed into an oncoming truck. All five teens were killed. More than 5,000 teenagers die in car accidents every year. "If we saw these numbers coming back from a war zone, it would be on the front page every day," says Vincent Leibell, a state senator from New York, where some 200 teens died in crashes in 2006.

The numbers aren’t budging. Fatalities did drop from the mid-’70s through the early ’90s, mainly because of tougher seat belt and drunk driving laws. But since then, the statistics have remained stubbornly high, despite improved safety features in cars.

Some of this is due to teens themselves. "Anytime you have immaturity combined with inexperience, you have the potential for disaster," says Nicole Nason, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "And that’s what you get with a 16-year-old behind the wheel."

But that’s not the whole story. Speed, distraction, and driver inexperience cause most crashes-and those things can be controlled. "These deaths should not be considered an inevitable part of the teen experience," says Justin McNaull, director of state relations for AAA. "We can change this." Here are three steps that will prevent crashes and save countless lives — of teens and others on the road.


Part of the reason for teens’ poor judgment is hardwired: The brain’s prefrontal cortex-which handles tasks like controlling impulses-isn’t fully formed. "Our brains get tons of input from multiple places," says Flaura Winston, MD, scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. "Adults don’t act on all those impulses; we sort them. But teens have a hard time doing this."

And they have a hard time understanding what’s risky in a car. In a recent study, researchers surveyed 5,600 teens and found huge gaps in their knowledge.

One problem is that teens fail to see certain behaviors as dangerous. Only 28 percent said using a cell phone is a risk, and 10 percent said the same about having other teens in the car. (They’re both big distractions, and boys in the car are more distracting than girls.) Only half of the respondents cited speeding or not wearing a seat belt. Even if teens got the right idea about a behavior-for instance, 87 percent said drinking and driving is dangerous but they didn’t view it as their problem: Only 16 percent said they ever see it happen. (Some might be lying; 25 percent of young drivers killed in crashes had been drinking.)

The message for parents: Spell out the dangers for your kids. It’s up to you because only 20 percent of schools offer driver’s education today, down from 90 percent in the 1980s. Nason says, "You have a responsibility to make sure your child isn’t going to drive into someone else head-on because he’s busy chatting on his cell phone and nobody’s told him, ‘Hang up the phone and drive the car.’ "


Even if your state has weak laws, you can still set the rules for your own teen. "You’re the parent," says AAA’s McNaull. "You control when your child gets licensed, you control the keys, and you control the car. You can put significant conditions in place."

Start by making sure your teen always wears a seat belt. "It’s the single most effective safety device in your car," says Nason. But more than half of teen drivers killed on the road in 2006 weren’t buckled up.

You can also lay down your own phase-in law. Set your teen’s night driving limit to no later than 10 p.m., don’t allow more than one passenger, and ban cell phones-even with a headset. "Using a phone with a headset is of no benefit to an inexperienced driver," says University of Utah researcher David Strayer.

If your teen balks? Too bad, says Arthur Kellermann, MD, an emergency room physician who’s also an injury-prevention researcher at Emory University and the father of a 20-year-old. "This is tough love," he says.

Nicole Nason agrees: "Every time you say, ‘You don’t start this car without a seat belt on, you can’t drive late at night, this is not the party mobile,’ you are saving your children’s lives."

Talk to your children before it’s too late! Make sure they are aware of the dangers of driving. Teach them techniques to drive safer and lead by example.