Special Report: The Dangers of Teen Driving

Car crashes are the No. 1 killer of teens. It's time to take action.

By Joseph K. Vetter with Fran Lostys from Reader's Digest | August 2008

Part of the reason for teens’ poor judgment is hardwired: The brain’s prefrontal cortex-which handles tasks like controlling impulses-isn’t fully formed. “Our brains get tons of input from multiple places,” says Flaura Winston, MD, scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Adults don’t act on all those impulses; we sort them. But teens have a hard time doing this.”
And they have a hard time understanding what’s risky in a car. In a recent study, researchers surveyed 5,600 teens and found huge gaps in their knowledge.

One problem is that teens fail to see certain behaviors as dangerous. Only 28 percent said using a cell phone is a risk, and 10 percent said the same about having other teens in the car. (They’re both big distractions, and boys in the car are more distracting than girls.) Only half cited speeding or not wearing a seat belt. Even if teens got the right idea about a behavior-for instance, 87 percent said drinking and driving is dangerous-they didn’t view it as their problem: Only 16 percent said they ever see it happen. (Some might be lying; 25 percent of young drivers killed in crashes had been drinking.)

The message for parents: Spell out the dangers for your kids. It’s up to you because only 20 percent of schools offer driver ed today, down from 90 percent in the 1980s. Nason says, “You have a responsibility to make sure your child isn’t going to drive into someone else head-on because he’s busy chatting on his cell phone and nobody’s told him, ‘Hang up the phone and drive the car.’ ”

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