October Is Teen Driver Safety Month, Is Your Teen A Safe Driver?

Teen Driving Safety

Being a parent has got to be the hardest job on the planet. The process of raising a child from birth to adulthood is both complex and diverse and begins well before the birth of the child. I promise not to go over the whole child development process here but I’d like jump ahead to the teenage years, 13-17, where we find a whole bunch of change taking place.

It is during this phase of childhood development that parents become aware of unexpected, sometimes even shocking changes in their child. These changes in clothing, behavior toward the opposite sex, language, hairstyle, physical growth, etc., can send a parent’s world to spinning. Parents often wonder just who this person is, thus, they feel overwhelmed and seemingly unable to deal with them. Experts tell parents that there are two important facets they must focus on as they redefine the authority relationship:

1. Communicating with teenagers, and

2. Setting limits and giving guidance.

It is during this process that parents must understand that the child’s job is to develop a separate identity and throughout this period the relationship between parent and child swings back and forth from closeness and distance, a truly great challenge for both. And then, right in the middle of this period the state tells you and your teen that they have reached the legal age to drive a car.

For teens and parents alike, it’s a time of excitement and dread. Excitement because their child is growing up and the parents can relinquish to job of being the chauffeur for their busy teens and dread because they know in their heart of hearts the dangers that teen drivers face as they take to the highways and byways.

The Problem

I have seen far too many teen deaths and I strongly encourage parents to be realistic about the skills and propensities of their children. The following statistics from the Center For Disease Control tell the story:

Within those numbers, when we compare death rates of male to female drivers, we find that males are two times more likely to die in car accidents than females. A very interesting statistic that I share with parents is that teen drivers with teen passengers increase the risk of a serious crash and that number increases with each separate passenger.

An interesting study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that when factoring in all of the traffic accidents involving 15-17 year-old-drivers, nearly two others are killed for every teen death. This is significant because passengers of the teen driver, other drivers and their passengers, as well as pedestrians and bicyclists are more at risk from teen drivers.


The basic reasons behind this statistic are obvious, teen drivers have no experience with the myriad issues faced by drivers with experience, furthermore, they are immature and often takes risks, most often speeding, and are easily distracted which contribute to the increased death rate.

The Teenage Brain

The pre-frontal cortex is the area of the brain where humans weigh outcomes, make judgments and control our impulses and emotions. This area of a teen brain is not fully developed leading them to act on impulse, get into accidents, misinterpret social cues and emotions, engage in fights and other dangerous and risky behavior.

Because of the lack of brain development teens don’t think before they act, stop and consider the consequences of their actions, nor do they modify or change any dangerous or inappropriate behaviors. A driver (teen or adult), under normal circumstances has to make about 180 decisions per minute.

Add to this, huge reproductive hormonal changes which not only shape sex-related growth, but social behavior. For good measure add stress hormones which can have complex effects on the brain which also translates into social behavior. If you are right 99% of the time you will make 108 mistakes per hour and 1080 in 10 hours. It only takes one mistake to have an accident. I think you get the picture here.


When highway traffic safety professionals look to teen driving fatalities they focus on four main problem areas; speeding, alcohol and drug use, failure to use seat belts and distractions. Elimination or reduction of these problems would greatly impact teen driving fatalities.


A research report from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and State Farm Insurance Companies shows that 50% of fatally injured teens were speeding at the time of the accident. When I share these statistics with parents of teens, I find it interesting that they seem surprised. Far to often they don’t consider speed a main factor, most probably because they speed themselves.


Distracted driving is any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving. All distractions endanger driver, passenger, and bystander safety. Distractions can take many forms, other teen passengers can cause distractions, listening to music, especially with headphones can limit the teen drivers ability to hear other vehicles, emergency or otherwise.

The most dangerous distraction, and the one most likely to cause teen drivers trouble are distractions related to the use of a cell phone. Recent studies at the University of Utah show that motorists who talk on handheld or hands-free cellular phones are as impaired as drunken drivers.

According to co-author of the study, Frank Drews, Assistant Professor of Psychology, “We found that people are as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit” of 0.08 percent, which is the minimum level that defines illegal drunken driving in most U.S. states.”  He went on to suggest, “If legislators really want to address driver distraction, then they should consider outlawing cell phone use while driving.”

The other side of the cell phone distraction problem is Texting. Texting requires a teen driver to take their eyes off of the road to create and read text messages. It doesn’t take much to understand the danger of an inexperienced teen driver traveling along the highways and byways and not paying attention to the road, and the other cars in front of him.

Alcohol & Drugs

According to new research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance, 23 percent of teens admit to driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or other drugs. With 13 million driving-aged teenagers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, that means as many as 3 million impaired adolescents may be taking to the road.

The mission of SADD is to provide students with the best prevention tools possible to deal with the issues of underage drinking, other drug use, risky and impaired driving, and other destructive decisions. This is a wonderful resource for parents of teen drivers.

Most teens (91 percent) consider themselves to be safe, cautious drivers. For example, nearly 40 percent claim that alcohol has no impact on their driving. Some even say it helps. And when it comes to operating a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana, a whopping 75 percent feel the same way.

Specifically, about one in four teens who have driven under the influence of marijuana (25 percent) or prescription drugs (23 percent), and about one in seven teens who report drinking and driving (14 percent), say they’re not distracted “at all” when mixing substance use with driving.

Seat Belts

Studies show that Teens buckle up far less frequently than adults do. Efforts aimed at increasing seatbelt use among teen drivers seem to have little or no positive effect on changing their behavior. Crash statistics from 2009 show that the majority (56%) of drivers 16 to 20 years old involved in fatal crashes were unsecured.

Parents should provide a good example and buckle up every time they get into the car. It is never to early to teach you children the importance of buckling up.

Some important numbers to consider about teen driver seat belt use:

-58 percent of teen drivers killed in crashes were not wearing a seat belt in 2011, an increase from 56 percent in 2008.

-50 percent of passengers killed in crashes involving a teen driver were not buckled up in 2011, a decrease from 65 percent in 2008.

-Among the general population, the number of teen passengers who report that they do not always wearing a seat belt decreased to 46 percent in 2011 from 51 percent in 2008.

-Teens have the lowest seat belt use of any age group.

-Teens who live in states with primary enforcement seat belt laws are 12 percent more likely to buckle up as drivers and 15 percent more likely to buckle up as passengers compared to teens who reside in states with weaker secondary enforcement seat belt laws.

-As teens move the stages of Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL), they are more likely to stay buckled up in primary enforcement states than in secondary enforcement states.

-Teens more frequently associate seat belt use with a “safe driver” rather than a “good driver.”

-Some common teen responses for not wearing seat belts: the belts are uncomfortable; the trip was short; forgetfulness; lack of understanding about their importance in a crash; and not being “cool.”

-Male teens continue to lag behind female teens in seat belt use. In 2009, 11.5 percent say they rarely or never wear a seat belt as a passenger, compared to 7.7 percent of high school females.

-Driving programs that combine education, peer-to-peer strategies, publicized enforcement, and parental monitoring may show potential for increasing teen seat belt use.


How can deaths and injuries resulting from crashes involving teen drivers be prevented?

There are proven methods to helping teens become safer drivers. Graduated driver licensing (GDL) systems are designed to delay full licensure while allowing teens to get their initial driving experience under low-risk conditions. Research suggests that the most comprehensive graduated drivers licensing (GDL) programs are associated with reductions of 38% and 40% in fatal and injury crashes, respectively, among 16-year-old drivers.

In addition to laws, safety experts agree that parents play a key role in helping teens become good drivers. Parents should not rely solely on drivers education classes to teach good driving habits and should restrict night driving, restrict the numbers of passengers riding with their teen, supervise practice driving, always require use of seat belts and choose vehicles for safety, not image. Parents can also set a good example by practicing safe driving techniques themselves.

As a parent, you ultimately want your child to be well trained to tackle life’s challenges. Learning to drive is part of that training and it’s important that parents play an active role in the process. I suggest that all parents make themselves familiar with your state’s GDL requirements and study them with you kids in their early teens, well before they are eligible for a permit.

Practice safe driving from the time your children are toddlers. Remember, your kids are learning all sorts of things from their parents, and adding safe driving can save many problems when they become of age. Some suggestions include, don’t speed and comment on the danger of speeding, don’t use cell phones or allow yourself to become distracted while driving. Always wear your seat belts and remind your children of the importance of their use.

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