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How to help your teen be a better driver

By Rebecca Theim on August 26th, 2010
Auto Insurance

As Robin Thompson left her job as a school nurse in Atlanta, Ga., she waited for the customary call from her 16-year-old daughter, Ashley, telling her she was home from school.

The call never came.

"As I neared our home I saw a road block. Police and rescue workers were everywhere and a car that looked all too familiar was wrapped around a tree," Robin Thompson wrote on the website SafeTeenDrivingClub.org. She founded the organization after Ashley's 2003 death in a single-car accident that did not involve drinking or distractions from friends or a cell phone. "In a split second, on a sunny June afternoon, my world as I knew it ended."

Almost 14 young people die in preventable car crashes every day--or 5,000 a year--and another 300,000 teens are injured in auto accidents--or 822 daily--according to Allstate Insurance Company. Automobile accidents are the leading cause of death among U.S. teens, leading to more than 30 percent of all deaths in that age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Major risks

Researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the Teens in the Driver Seat Program administered through the Texas Transportation Institute, car insurers and other safety groups have spent decades studying teen auto accidents to determine what puts teen drivers at risk. Surprisingly, drinking and driving is not at the top of the list. Those that are include:

  • Driving at night. "Driving at night is the most common documented crash-causing danger encountered by inexperienced drivers," according to a May 2010 report by the Teens in the Driver Seat Program, which found that teen nighttime accidents increased significantly, even when alcohol was not involved. Driving between 9:00 p.m. and 5:59 a.m. tripled the risk of a fatal crash for 16-year-old drivers, a 2003 IIHS study showed. "Young drivers are clueless about which risks they actually face," said Bernie Fette, public affairs director of the Teens in the Driver Seat Program. "More than 85 percent of the teens we've surveyed can tell us alcohol is a risk factor, but only 3 percent know that driving at night is a risk."
  • Transporting other teens. Teen drivers with one teenage passenger double their risk of being involved in a fatal crash as compared to teens driving alone, and the risk of a fatal crash is five times as high for teens carrying two or more teenage passengers, according to a 2007 report by State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company and the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. But only 10 percent of teens believe that having other teen passengers in the car affects safety, according to the Allstate survey.
  • Texting or talking on the cell phone while driving. An IIHS study found a four-fold increase in the risk of injury-causing crashes by drivers using cell phones. A November 2009 study by the Pew Research Center found that 48 percent of teens had been in a car when the driver was texting, with 40 percent reporting that the driver's texting put themselves or others in danger. But only 28 percent of teens believe talking on a cell phone while driving increases the likelihood of an accident, according to the Allstate study.
  • Getting a learner's permit before age 16 or getting a full driver's license before age 18. Accident statistics and research studies consistently show that delaying the age at which teens begin driving significantly reduces their chance of causing an accident.

Graduated teen driving

Almost 30 states now have some form of "graduated teen driving laws," which limit the types of driving a teen can do initially and gradually introduces them as the driver gains experience and maturity. These can include:

  1. A minimum age of 16 to obtain a learner's permit
  2. A minimum learner's permit period of six months and parental certification that a teen has at least 30-to-50 hours of supervised driving
  3. An intermediate driver's license stage until at least age 18 that includes both night driving teen passenger restrictions

Such restrictions appear to work; for example, accidents involving teen drivers transporting other teens dropped 41 percent between 1996--when graduated licensing laws limiting the number of passengers began being adopted--and 2005, according to a 2007 IIHS report. Fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers fell 24 percent, and nighttime fatal crashes dropped 48 percent. How does your state rate? Access an IIHS list of state graduated licensing laws and their ratings.

The District of Columbia and 28 states ban (or will by July 1, 2010) cell phone use by novice drivers, while seven (California, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington), Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving, according to the Governors' Highway Safety Association (GHSA). Guam, Washington, D.C. and 28 states ban text messaging for all drivers. Other states are considering "distracted driving laws." Real-time updates about such legislation are at the GHSA website.

Parents should be role models and enforcers

Regardless of the state's laws, experts recommend parents delay allowing teens to get their full licenses until at least age 17--despite the pushback they likely will get from their child.

Parents should also practice safe driving as well. In fact, if a parent's own driving record is spotty, it is likely to have an effect on teen driving behavior. The IIHS found that teens whose parents have crashed their cars also are likely to have auto accidents. The more accidents a parent has, the greater the likelihood the teen will be involved in a collision.

Peer programs are effective

The Teens in the Driver Seat Program is a peer-to-peer program now in 350 Texas schools and four other states. "We saw a big void in terms of the peer influence element because kids listen to their friends more than to their parents," Fette said. The program has seen accidents drop in areas where it's been implemented. For example, in the Dallas suburb of Garland, where the program has been in place since 2006, teen auto accidents have dropped by almost one-half.

Practical advice

"Teens are teens, and you can hammer in all kinds of safety messages, but that's not what they're thinking about when they're riding around with their friends on a Saturday night," said Russ Rader with the IIHS. "Still, there are things parents can do to reduce risks for their teens." State Farm, IIHS and other insurers and safe driving organizations recommend parents commit to the following:

  • Practice, practice, practice, and under different conditions. Provide as much supervised behind-the-wheel practice as possible, and vary routes, times of day, and driving conditions. Teach teens to be alert for warnings and hazards, such as brake lights, traffic signals, roadblocks, pedestrians and emergency vehicles.
  • Set ground rules. Regardless of the state's law, parents should ensure their teens understand and agree to the household driving rules. One way to do this is to have your teenager sign a contract that spells out parents' expectations--and the consequences if teens violate them. "We don't know if contracts work, but certainly it's important to have strong parental involvement," Radar said. Teen driver contracts are available from: American Automobile Association, Allstate Insurance Company and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company
  • Prohibit passengers and nighttime driving for at least six months. Then allow only one teen passenger, gradually increasing the number, and the hours teens may drive after dusk.
  • Share cars. Doing so makes it easier for parents to control access to the vehicle--which makes it easier to agree on conditions of use.

"We're talking about the number one killer of young people nationwide," Fette said. "This problem is too large for any one solution."

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