In 2007, Congress established the third week in October as National Teen Driver Safety Week. Each year since then, our nation has recognized this week to increase awareness of teen car collisions, which are the leading cause of death for teenagers according to the Centers for Disease Control.
It can be difficult to help teen drivers—even responsible teens—who are becoming independent to recognize the risk factors that compromise their safety. Understanding the risks, proper driver education and parental involvement in driving practices can greatly reduce the risk of a crash with teen drivers.
What are the risk factors for teenage drivers?
- Inexperience is a leading cause of crashes with teens. New drivers simply don’t have the experience behind the wheel to judge distances needed to stop, unsafe road conditions and potential road hazards.
- Distractions significantly increase the risk of a crash for any driver, especially for inexperienced young drivers. Texting or calling takes the driver’s focus off the road for an average of five seconds—the length of time it takes to drive a football field at 55 miles per hour.
- Speed was a factor in approximately 38 percent of fatal car crashes in 2016, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. Even speeding just slightly over the limit increases the risk of collision.
- Fatigue can increase the risk of a crash, as the physical effects of driving while drowsy are similar to that of drinking and driving. Studies have shown that teenagers require more sleep than adults to function mentally and physically, yet are frequently fatigued due to studying and extracurricular activities.
- Underage drinking contributes to approximately 25 percent of car accidents, according to the National Organizations for Youth Safety.
How can we keep teens safer?
The Texas Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) Program allows teens to gain driving experience while maintaining safety. Teenagers who are younger than 18 must hold a valid learner license for six months or until they turn 18, whichever comes first. The learner license allows teens to practice driving with a licensed driver who is 21 or older. After the teenager has held a learner license for six months, reached the age of 16 and completed driver education, they are eligible to test for a provisional license and “graduate” to the next phase of the program. A provisional license allows teens to drive on their own; however, it restricts the number of passengers younger than 21 in the car and limits nighttime driving.
Research shows that comprehensive GDL programs can reduce fatal crashes by over 25 percent in teen drivers, especially when parents are involved and enforce the program requirements.
Parental involvement has been shown to have a strong impact on the safety of teen drivers. The Trauma Department at St. David’s Round Rock Medical Center encourages parents to take these steps to keep teenage drivers safe:
- Drive with your teen frequently for at least the first year of their new temporary or permanent license. Offer suggestions on judging distances, speed, road conditions and how to drive defensively.
- Talk to your teen about distracted driving and about being a safe passenger. Request that they minimize the conversation and music while driving or while riding in another teen’s vehicle.
- Instruct teen drivers to always wear a seatbelt and require their passengers to do the same. This crucial step protects the passenger’s life as well as others in the car, as an unrestrained person can become a flying projectile and hurt themselves as well as others in the event of a collision.
- Don’t let your child ride with another teen who has less than one year of experience. Young drivers need time and adult guidance to increase their experience on the road. The majority of teen collisions occur within their first year of driving.
- Stay involved in your child’s activities. Know where your teens are, who they are with, and what they are doing. Keep the lines of communication open and provide alternate transportation when there is a potential for an unsafe driving situation. Minimize the amount of time your teen is driving at night.
Becoming independent and transitioning into adulthood can be an exciting time for a teenager, but the risks to their safety while driving are significant. For more guidance on teaching your child safe driving practices, visit the National Safety Council’s website for parents of newly licensed teen drivers at driveitHOME.org.
Kristen Hullum, M.S.N., R.N., is the trauma injury prevention coordinator at St. David’s Round Rock Medical Center.