Parents of teenagers worry about lots of things: drugs, sex, poor choices of friends. But the activity that poses the greatest danger to your child is driving the family car.
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 16- to 20-year-olds, with about 5,500 teenage drivers or passengers dying each year. In addition, about 450,000 teenagers are injured, 27,000 of them requiring hospitalization, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported in the December issue of its journal, Pediatrics.
Of those who are killed, 63 percent are drivers and 37 percent are passengers, with boys accounting for two-thirds of the fatalities. Although teenagers represent only 6 percent of drivers, they are involved in 14 percent of fatal crashes. And the crash rate among the youngest drivers — 35 crashes per million miles driven by 16-year-olds — is nearly nine times the rate of the general population.
Although factors like alcohol, drugs and distractions like ipods and cellphones naturally come to mind, the single biggest reason for both fatal and nonfatal crashes involving teenage drivers is inexperience. In one study, the highest crash rate occurred during the first month after teenagers got their license. That rate, 120 crashes per 10,000 drivers, dropped to 70 crashes within five months.
Traditional driver education programs, which offer 30 hours of classroom instruction but only 6 hours of on-the-road training, “are not effective in creating safe drivers and decreasing crash risk,” according to the academy’s review of research. “In fact, some studies show that high school driver education programs encourage early licensure of the youngest, most dangerous drivers, with resulting increased crashes, injuries and deaths.”
Of course, alcohol, marijuana and other drugs, including prescribed and over-the-counter medications, are prominent factors in crashes involving teenagers. Though teenagers drink and drive less often than adults, they are more likely to crash when they do drink, especially at low and moderate blood-alcohol levels.
Distractions inside the vehicle contribute to accidents for both teenage and adult drivers. But distractions are a more serious problem for novice drivers because they tend to look away from the road for longer periods and may then drift out of their lane or fail to respond in time to a hazard.
The academy noted that “eating, drinking and adjusting the radio or the climate controls each cause more crashes than cellular phone use.” Hands-free cellphones have not reduced the risk significantly, the academy said.
Teenagers also are much less likely than adults to wear seat belts, especially when driving with other teenagers. And their use of belts is least likely in the most dangerous of conditions: when driving at night, under the influence of alcohol or with several teenage passengers. In crashes that occurred in 2004, 58 percent of the teenage occupants who were killed were not wearing a seat belt.
Nearly all states have so-called graduated licensing laws, some of which significantly increase the number of supervised hours of driving by teenagers while they are learning. These laws force a new driver to pass three stages: a learner’s permit, an intermediate or provisional stage and finally a regular driver’s license. For each stage, there are restrictions and minimum time requirements, and proficiency in driving skills must be demonstrated before the teenager can graduate to the next stage.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that in the 23 states (as well as the District of Columbia) with the best licensing laws, fatal crashes involving drivers ages 15 to 17 declined by 19 percent since those laws started taking effect in the mid-1990s. States with weaker laws experienced no benefit, the institute says. Even in states that have not adopted all the elements of graduated licensing, restrictions involving night driving and the number of teenage passengers have been found to improve driving safety.
While many states exempt school, work and religious activities from nighttime driving restrictions (the idea is to limit high-risk recreational driving at night), those states with restrictions that start before midnight have experienced a 13 percent decline in evening crash fatalities among drivers ages 15 to 17. As many as 58 percent of fatal nighttime crashes by teenage drivers occur in the three hours before midnight.
Parents should consider restrictions on night driving, the number of teenage passengers, driving in bad weather and adjusting the stereo while driving. Teenagers should also promise to call a parent for a ride if they are impaired in any way that can impede safe driving.
The academy recommends strict restrictions for the first six months, including a ban on teenage passengers and no driving after 9 p.m., for example, then gradual relaxation of restrictions if the teenager continues to demonstrate the ability to drive without committing a moving violation or getting into an accident.
For those young drivers in Colorado, many of the academy’s suggestions are already law. To gain a driver education permit, the driver must be at least 15 years old, and must present an Affidavit of Enrollment in Driver Education showing enrollment in a department-approved Driver Education Course that also offers behind the wheel instruction. For those minors 15 years 6 months – 16 years old, they may obtain a driver awareness permit after they have completed a 4-hour driver awareness program approved by the department.
To earn a minor instruction permit, available to minors 16 years to 21 years of age, the minors under 18 must submit a written log showing at least 50 hours of drive time experience at the time they apply for their Driver’s License. Ten of those 50 hours must have been driven at night. Minors under 18 must hold the permit for a minimum of 12 months before applying for a Driver’s License.
Regardless of when you got your license, if you are under 18 you cannot drive a vehicle carrying a passenger under 21 unless you have held your Driver’s License for at least 6 months. And, you cannot drive a vehicle carrying more than one passenger under 21 unless you have held your Driver’s License for at least one year. Exceptions to carrying passengers include when your parent or guardian is in the car with you, or the passengers under 21 are members of your immediate family and they are all wearing seatbelts.
For complete information about the Log Sheet and restrictions for drivers under 17 years of age, see the “Driver Time Log Sheet” on the Colorado Motor Vehicle Division Handbooks Web page.