Special Report: The Dangers of Teen Driving

• Kylie Grayden, 17, of Shorewood, Minnesota, glanced at her iPod while driving with her cousin and a friend, both

• Kylie Grayden, 17, of Shorewood, Minnesota, glanced at her iPod while driving with her cousin and a friend, both 17. When she veered off the road and flipped her car into a ditch, she and her friend were killed.

• Heading home from practice, Jonathan Chapman, a 16-year-old high school basketball player from La Plata, Maryland, was reportedly speeding when his car rammed an SUV. He and three friends, ages 14 to 16, were killed.

• Five days after graduating from high school, Bailey Goodman, 17, of Fairport, New York, and four classmates were on their way to her family’s cottage. Moments after text messages were exchanged on Bailey’s cell phone, she slammed into an oncoming truck. All five teens were killed. 

Teen Driving Risks
More than 5,000 teenagers die in car accidents every year.
 More than 5,000 teenagers die in car accidents every year. “If we saw these numbers coming back from a war zone, it would be on the front page every day,” says Vincent Leibell, a state senator from New York, where some 200 teens died in crashes in 2006.

The numbers aren’t budging. Fatalities did drop from the mid-’70s through the early ’90s, mainly because of tougher seat belt and drunk driving laws. But since then, the statistics have remained stubbornly high, despite improved safety features in cars.

Some of this is due to teens themselves. “Anytime you have immaturity combined with inexperience, you have the potential for disaster,” says Nicole Nason, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “And that’s what you get with a 16-year-old behind the wheel.”

But that’s not the whole story. Speed, distraction, and driver inexperience cause most crashes-and those things can be controlled. “These deaths should not be considered an inevitable part of the teen experience,” says Justin McNaull, director of state relations for AAA. “We can change this.” Here are three steps that will prevent crashes and save countless lives — of teens and others on the road.

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.’ ”

“You don’t suddenly become a good driver when you turn 16,” Nason says. “We need to ease teens into a lifelong habit of good driving.”

That’s the goal of graduated driver licensing laws, which impose restrictions before teens earn a full license. An ideal law would set the minimum age for a permit at 16, limit passengers to one, ban cell phones, prohibit driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., and not allow a full license until age 18.

These laws make sense. A recent study by Johns Hopkins University for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that a tough phase-in law could decrease deaths among 16-year-old drivers by 38 percent. “It’s clear that giving young drivers more time behind the wheel with supervision makes a big difference,” says Susan Baker, the study’s coauthor.

That was the case in Georgia, where a graduated licensing law slashed fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers by 37 percent over five years and cut speeding-related fatal crashes among the same age group by nearly half. The law also imposes stiff penalties — including having a license taken away for up to a year-for speeding, reckless driving, and other serious errors.

Currently, 47 states have phase-in laws, but few are as effective as they could be. Only eight set the minimum age for a permit at 16. Fewer than ten prohibit driving after 10 p.m. And only 12 have strict limits on passengers.
Kansas State Senator Phil Journey pushed for a bill to impose nighttime, passenger, and cell phone restrictions on teen drivers, but it failed in his state’s House of Representatives. He says the costs of refusing to act are obvious: “Statistically, we know that somebody’s going to leave home and is not going to survive because this bill didn’t become law.”

Find out how to lobby for tough laws in your state.

The main obstacle is the belief that stricter measures impinge on parents’ right to decide when and with whom their kids drive. The reasons for the complaints vary: Some parents want their teens to run errands unaccompanied; others want their kids to drive a farm truck as soon as possible. (That’s what sank the Kansas bill.)

Vermont State Representative Kathy Lavoie, the mother of two teens, supports some limitations but balks at a nighttime restriction that would prevent kids from driving to hunting grounds in the early morning, which teens in her state enjoy. “When it comes to an infringement on parental rights, I get nervous,” she says.

Nason of the traffic safety administration has heard these objections before. “Fear of the ‘nanny state’ always rears its head,” she says. “But a car crash doesn’t just affect the person in the car. It affects the people in the car they hit.” Add in the costs to law enforcement and health care, she notes, and it’s hard to argue against putting society’s interests ahead of parents’ rights. In a recent study, AAA found that teen crashes cost the rest of us more than $34 billion annually.

Bradford Hill, the Massachusetts state representative who sponsored legislation that cut speeding by 33 percent and reduced serious-injury crashes by more than 40 percent, said most parents in his state support the law. “They say, ‘I’m so glad these changes were made,’ ” he says.

Some teens feel the same way. In New York, 18-year-old David Mangano of White Plains sees the value in his state’s law that limits teen passengers to two. “If you have a lot of people in the car, it’s really hectic,” he says, “so it’s nice to have that restriction.”

Even if your state has weak laws, you can still set the rules for your own teen. “You’re the parent,” says AAA’s McNaull. “You control when your child gets licensed, you control the keys, and you control the car. You can put significant conditions in place.”

Start by making sure your teen always wears a seat belt. “It’s the single most effective safety device in your car,” says Nason. But more than half of teen drivers killed on the road in 2006 weren’t buckled up.

You can also lay down your own phase-in law. Set your teen’s night driving limit to no later than 10 p.m., don’t allow more than one passenger, and ban cell phones-even with a headset. “Using a phone with a headset is of no benefit to an inexperienced driver,” says University of Utah researcher David Strayer.

If your teen balks? Too bad, says Arthur Kellermann, MD, an emergency room physician who’s also an injury-prevention researcher at Emory University and the father of a 20-year-old. “This is tough love,” he says.

Nicole Nason agrees: “Every time you say, ‘You don’t start this car without a seat belt on, you can’t drive late at night, this is not the party mobile,’ you are saving your children’s lives.”

In a first-ever analysis, we examined each state’s graduated driver licensing, seat belt, and DUI laws and awarded points based on strictness. (Alaska gets more points in the seat belt category because anyone 16 and older who isn’t buckled up can be fined; New Hampshire gets fewer points because it has no seat belt laws for 18- and 19-year olds.)

Alaska, California, Delaware, Washington, Illinois, Maine, Indiana, Oregon, Hawaii, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, District of Columbia

New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, Nebraska, Maryland, Oklahoma, Colorado, Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, Louisiana, Utah

Massachusetts, Vermont, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Virginia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Texas, West Virginia, Arizona, Florida, Nevada

New Hampshire, Kansas, Wyoming, South Carolina, Mississippi, North Dakota, Minnesota, Idaho, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Montana, Arkansas

The Teen Death Toll
States with the toughest driving laws tend to have lower fatality rates, but other factors count too. Rural roads (with higher speed limits, less traffic, and fewer nearby medical services) are a big crash risk. The following is a list of the top 10 states in teen-driving fatalities per 100,000 kids over the past decade.

Mississippi 35.1, Wyoming 34.5, Montana 33.8, Alabama 33.5, Missouri 32.5, Arkansas 31.9, Tennessee 30.8, S. Dakota 30.8, Kentucky 30.6, Oklahoma 28.3

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