Teen drivers need support to navigate high risk years

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NTSB Vice Chair Bella Dinh Zarr speaking during US Teen Driver Safety Week
NTSB Vice Chair Bella Dinh Zarr speaking during US Teen Driver Safety Week

To mark National Teen Driver Safety Week in the United States, the FIA Foundation’s US Manager, Natalie Draisin, blogs on the role of parents, peers and government in keeping new young drivers safe on the road.

“The driver in front of me wasn’t paying attention and slammed on the brakes. I would’ve gone straight into him, if I hadn’t seen it coming. I always check the brake lights of the vehicle two cars ahead of me, so I know to slow down. I also leave one car length of space between me and the car ahead for every ten miles per hour of speed, just in case. If I hadn’t been paying attention, it would’ve been a bad crash with serious injuries – especially if I weren’t wearing my seatbelt.”

These are the stories that I grew up on, and stories that I hope to hear more of during US National Teen Driver Safety Week. Long before I was old enough to drive, my father would share his near-death experiences on the roads with me - not to scare me, but rather so that I would learn to think like a safe driver, anticipate and avoid crashes before they occurred. He took every precautionary measure, even refusing to start the car until everyone was wearing their seatbelt.

Conversations like this aren’t just ‘nice to have,’ they’re ‘must haves,’ especially when 3 out of 4 teens say their parents are the biggest factor in their decision about whether or not to drink and drive. With over 7 teens killed every single day on US roads in 2013, and over 130,000 injured, these moments between parents and teens can be life-saving. In a country, and a world, where motor vehicles are the leading cause of death for both children and teens, parents have an obligation to talk to their kids about safe driving. With years of driving experience behind them, they can impart knowledge on the eight ‘danger zones’ according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: driver inexperience; driving with teen passengers; nighttime driving; distracted driving; drowsy driving; reckless driving; and impaired driving. Teens can learn from their parents’ mistakes before they make the mistakes themselves, learning lessons that will last long after their parents are in the car with them. Parents can explain that drowsy driving can be just as fatal as drunk driving, promise to give their kids a ride if they’ve been drinking, and set an example by putting the cell phone away while they drive. Really, they start teaching driving habits once they turn the car seat around.

Despite how important it is for parents to talk to their teens about safe driving, only 25% of parents do so. That’s why the discussion needs to happen outside of the home, too. For example, with access to both parents and teens, pediatricians can help increase that percentage by starting the conversation. Teachers and coaches can too, especially since teens spend over 5 hours in school and at extracurricular activities per day. They can remind parents to lead by example, and educate teens about risks. Community partners can display materials about safe teen driving in places where parents go with their teens. CDC’s ‘Parents are the Key’ site offers materials that parents, paediatricians, and partners can use in promoting safe teen driving. It includes free materials, event planning guides, and media outreach kits. Keys2Drive by the American Automobile Association is another valuable resource, which automatically detects which state you are in, offering most relevant information and laws.

Teens need to help each other become safer drivers, too. Like my dad, when I first started driving, I refused to start the car until everyone was buckled up – and the behavior became contagious. Teens often are afraid to speak up because they don’t want to nag their friends about their driving habits, forgetting that the comments might be appreciated and life-saving. Especially when they have younger siblings, they set examples. This week, I heard the brother of a victim say – ‘do you think my younger sister died because she saw me texting, and she did it too?’

The National Highway Traffic Administration understands the need to deliver the message through teens, and this week launched their new ad, the ‘ultimate party foul’ which can be viewed at Safercar.gov. We at the FIA Foundation recognize the power of teens to become part of the solution, as well. That’s why we have the Road Safety Leadership Initiative, where teens make their voices heard and advocate for road safety.

Especially in the US, which is behind the game in lowering fatality and injury rates on the roads, policymakers must act now. States should take advantage of NHTSA’s offer to analyze and make recommendations to improve their driver education programs. State policymakers can promote graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws, which are known to help decrease teen crash risk by 20-40% for the youngest drivers. GDL systems ensure more accompanied practice for new drivers, and also restrict driving under risky conditions, like driving at night, or having multiple people in the car which can cause distraction. The more comprehensive the GDL system, the less likely crashes are. For example, the best GDL system requires that drivers be a minimum of 16 years old to have a learners’ permit, and that they keep that permit for at least 12 months before being eligible for the next level. They also restrict nighttime driving between 10pm and 5am, or longer for intermediate license holders. For intermediate or provisional license holders, they allow zero or one young passengers to ride with without adult supervision. Furthermore, GDL laws that apply to all drivers, not just teenage drivers, are best. Though the evidence shows they help, it’s important to remember they aren’t a cure-all. State Farm, for example, showed that distracted driving behaviors become even more prevalent after about five months of license ownership, perhaps because of increased confidence levels.

This week, to partake in National Teen Driver Safety Week, I attended the National Organizations for Youth Safety Teen Driving Summit in Virginia. Teens from around the country gathered to learn how to engage their parents, peers, community members, and policymakers in education about distracted driving. The generation most affected by deaths and injuries on the roads is learning how to reverse the epidemic.

America has made some progress – in the 15-20-year-old age group, driver fatalities declined by 15 percent from 2004 to 2013 - but we still have a long way to go, and other countries do too. Countries that don’t have a National Teen Driver Safety Week should have one while school is in session so teachers can help promote the initiative. Teens should remind their friends to buckle up, and policymakers should ensure teens have more experience before driving under risky conditions. Parents need to remember that no amount of practice will ever account for all of the situations teens will face while driving, making it so important to share their own experiences. There’s a role for everyone to play in keeping teen drivers safe on the roads.