Safe Driving for Teens


Getting a driver’s license is an eagerly anticipated event for most teens that confers status and feelings of independence.  But it is also a time of grave risk. Young drivers, aged 15- to 20-years old, are especially vulnerable to death and injury on our roadways.  Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in America. Two out of three people killed in crashes involving teen drivers are people other than the teen driver—including passengers of teen drivers, occupants in other vehicles, motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

For teens, the risk of being in a car crash is at a lifetime high in the first 6-12 months and 1,000 miles of driving. Per mile driven, teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as all other drivers. Teenage drivers account for only 7% of the driving population but are involved in 14% of fatal crashes.

Young, immature and inexperienced drivers, particularly 16- to 17-year-olds, are significantly over represented in fatal crashes. Important risk behaviors are speeding, drinking and driving, not wearing seat belts, distracted driving (cell phone use, texting, loud music, other teen passengers, etc.), drowsy driving, nighttime driving, and other drug use. Among 15- to 20-year-old drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2006, 25 percent of the drivers who were killed had been drinking. Nationally in 2009, 3,349 teen passenger vehicle occupants, ages 16 to 20, were killed in motor vehicle crashes, and 56 percent of these drivers were not restrained with seatbelts.

There are proven ways to prevent motor vehicle-related deaths and injuries among teen drivers:  they include increasing seat belt use, implementing graduated driver licensing (GDL), reducing teens' access to alcohol and other drugs, and parental involvement and responsibility.

46 States and the District of Columbia have a three-stage GDL system. Analysis shows that adopting GDL laws will lead to substantial decreases of crashes for this age group—anywhere between 20 and 50 percent. The GDL system phases in young beginning drivers to full driving privileges as they become more mature and develop their driving skills. 

The three stages to a graduated licensing system are:

  1. A supervised learner’s period, typically with eligibility at age 16 and lasting a minimum of 6 months;
  2. An intermediate or probationary license that limits driving in high-risk situations except under supervision;
  3. A license with full privileges, available after completing the first two stages, often not available until age 18.

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National Safety Council
The National Safety Council recommends five common sense steps to reduce teen driver crashes:

  1. Set a Nighttime Driving Restriction
    Teens drive only 15% of their miles at night, but 40% of their fatal motor vehicle crashes happen during that time period.  Even for experienced drivers, the chances of being in a crash are about three times greater at night than during daylight hours. The National Safety Council recommends no unsupervised driving after 10 p.m., and even earlier is better.
  2. Set a Passenger Restriction
    For teens, one passenger increases their crash risk by 48%, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That risk grows exponentially as more passengers are added— they are 258% more likely to crash with two passengers and 307% more likely with three or more. Having several teens in a vehicle turns it into a social environment where driving behavior can be negatively affected. The National Safety Council recommends zero passengers younger than 18 be allowed in a vehicle during a teen’s first 12 months of driving.
  3. Ban Cell Phone Use While Driving
    NSC estimates indicate 23% of all crashes involve cell phone use each year. The NHTSA found teens are more likely to use cell phones behind the wheel than any other age group. According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of teens ages 16 to 17 admit to talking on a cell phone behind the wheel. Cell phone use should be banned among all drivers, and parents need to lead by setting a good example.
  4. Prohibit Alcohol
    Drinking and driving remains a problem among teens. According to NHTSA, nearly one-third of drivers ages 15 to 20 who were killed in crashes had been drinking. Every state has a zero tolerance law for underage drivers who drink. This means teen drivers cannot have any measurable alcohol in their system.
  5. Make Safety Belts Mandatory
    Safety belts are the most effective safety device in vehicles and everyone should be buckled at all times. NHTSA data shows wearing a safety belt can reduce the risk of crash injuries by about 50%.
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Rules for New Drivers
Rules for parents to consider when teens begin driving independently include:
  • Parents should not allow young drivers unrestricted driving privileges until they have gained sufficient experience.
  •  Parents should limit their teen's driving alone in adverse weather conditions (rain, snow, ice, fog. etc.) and at night until the teen has sufficient skills and experience.
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is illegal and dangerous and should be strictly prohibited.
  • Parents should work out when and where the teen is allowed to drive the car (e.g. to and from part-time job, etc.).
    Everyone in the car must wear seat belts at all times.
  • Parents should determine whether and when their teen can drive passengers. Some states have established a law that no passengers are allowed in the car until the teen has logged a defined period of safe independent driving
  • Parents should determine what behavior or circumstances will result in loss of the teen's driving privileges.
  • Teens should not drive when fatigued or tired.
  • Headphones should never be worn while driving.
  • Teens should not text or talk on the phone while driving.
  • Helmets must be worn when riding a motorcycle.
  • Teens should be encouraged to take an annual defensive driving course after obtaining their license.

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Developing Habits and Skills for Safe Driving
Supervised behind-the-wheel driving experience is the key to developing necessary habits and skills for safe driving. Parents need to work with their teens to help them gain the needed experience and judgment.

Another key strategy for safe driving habits is to learn and practice defensive driving.  The following information on defensive driving is provided by GirlsHealth a program of US Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health.

Not everyone drives well. Some people speed aggressively. Others wander into another lane because they aren't paying attention. Drivers may follow too closely, make sudden turns without signaling, or weave in and out of traffic.

Aggressive drivers are known road hazards, causing one third of all traffic crashes. But inattentive driving is becoming more of a problem as people "multitask" by talking on the phone, texting or checking messages, eating, or even watching TV as they drive.

Learning defensive driving skills can help us avoid the dangers caused by other people's bad driving. When you drive defensively, you're aware and ready for whatever happens. You are cautious, yet ready to take action and not put your fate in the hands of other drivers.

Skills That Put You in Control

  • Stay focused. There are a lot of things to think about when driving: road conditions, your speed, observing traffic laws, signs and signals, following directions, being aware of the cars around you, checking your mirrors—the list goes on. Staying focused on driving—and only driving—is key. Distractions, like talking on the phone or eating, make a driver less able to see potential problems and react to them. It's not just teen drivers who are at fault: People who have been driving for a while can get overconfident in their driving abilities and let their driving skills get sloppy. All drivers need to remind themselves to stay focused.
  • Stay alert. Being alert (not sleepy or under the influence) allows you to react quickly to potential problems—such as if the driver in the car ahead slams on the brakes at the last minute. Obviously, alcohol or drugs (including prescription and over-the-counter drugs) affect a driver's reaction time and judgment. Driving while drowsy has the same effect and is one of the leading causes of crashes. So rest up before your road trip.
  • Watch out for the other guy. Part of staying in control is being aware of other drivers and roadway users around you (and what they may suddenly do) so you're less likely to be caught off guard. For example, if a car speeds past you on the highway but there's not much space between the car and a slow-moving truck in the same lane, it's a pretty sure bet the driver will try to pull into your lane directly in front of you. Anticipating what another driver might do prepares you to react and helps reduce your risk.

Driving Tips from the U.S. Department of Transportation
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 90% of all crashes are attributed to driver error.  Following these defensive driving tips can help reduce your risk on the road:

  • Think safety first. Avoiding aggressive and inattentive driving tendencies yourself will put you in a stronger position to deal with other people's bad driving. Leave plenty of space between you and the car in front. Always lock your doors and wear your seatbelt to protect you from being thrown from the car in a crash.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and pay attention. Check your mirrors frequently and scan conditions 20 to 30 seconds ahead of you. If a vehicle is showing signs of aggressive driving, slow down or pull over to avoid it. If the driver is driving so dangerously that you're worried, try to get off the roadway by turning right or taking the next exit if it's safe to do so. Also, keep an eye on pedestrians, bicyclists, and pets along the road.
  • Do not depend on other drivers. Be considerate of others but look out for yourself. Do not assume another driver is going to move out of the way or allow you to merge. Assume that drivers will run through red lights or stop signs and be prepared to react. Plan your movements anticipating the worst-case scenario.
  • Have an escape route. In all driving situations, the best way to avoid potential dangers is to position your vehicle where you have the best chance of seeing and being seen. Having an alternate path of travel is essential, so take the position of other vehicles into consideration when determining an alternate path of travel.
  • Follow the 3- to 4-second rule. Since the greatest chance of a collision is in front of you, using the 3- to 4-second rule will help you establish and maintain a safe following distance and provide adequate time for you to brake to a stop if necessary in normal traffic under good weather conditions.
  • Keep your speed down. Posted speed limits apply to ideal conditions. It's your responsibility to ensure that your speed matches conditions.
  • Separate risks. When faced with multiple risks, it's necessary to address them by separating risks. Your goal is to avoid having to deal with too many risk factors at the same time.
  • Cut out distractions. A distraction is any activity that diverts your attention from the task of driving. Driving deserves your full attention; stay focused on the driving task.

If you're interested in taking a defensive driving course to help sharpen your driving knowledge and skills, contact your state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Most states maintain a list of approved defensive driving courses—many of which offer online programs. They cost money, but after successfully completing a course in some states, you may be eligible for insurance premium discounts, “positive” safe driving points, or other benefits.

Safe driving!

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