Focusing on What Counts for Teen Drivers

April 4, 2013

While motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for teens, we have made great strides in reducing the number of crashes involving teens behind the wheel. According to a new report released today by CIRP@CHOP and State Farm®, the number of teen driver-related fatalities declined 47 percent in the past six years from a total of 5,889 in 2005 to a total of 3,150 in 2011.

The report, called­ Miles to go, also reveals a positive trend for teen passengers. A majority now say they “always” use their seat belt, fewer ride with teen drivers who had been drinking, and the number not wearing seat belts who died in crashes decreased by 15 percent. Since 2008, 30 percent fewer teen passengers were killed in crashes involving a teen driver. 

As a traffic injury researcher and parent of three teens, I like this momentum. It’s time for us to apply the gas on programs that directly address what causes teens to crash and die, rather than let our efforts plateau. The data point to the need to focus on three specific aims for teen driver safety programs, perhaps as enhancements to state Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) and driver training programs:

1. Decrease Distraction

We need to reduce distractions from passengers and technology. Peer passengers can knowingly or unknowingly distract teen drivers, and one-third of teens admit to recently texting or emailing while driving. Teens need to acquire the essential driving skills that can prevent crashes, including how to manage peer passengers and other distractions. Involve parents in your programs. They can limit the number of friends their teens may drive, insist on no cell phone or other technology use while driving, and discuss ways to be a safe passenger.

2. Increase Seat Belt Use

While we have momentum of more teen passengers reporting “always” buckling up, we need to tap into their associated safety beliefs and norms to get the rest of their friends to always use seat belts. Teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use of any age group. CIRP@CHOP research found that teens who live in states with primary enforcement seat belt laws are 12 percent more likely to wear a seat belt as a driver and 15 percent more likely to buckle up as a passenger than those living in states with secondary enforcement belt laws. Consider primary belt laws essential to any state’s strategy to reduce crash deaths.

3. Enhance Driver Training

We need to develop evidence-based training programs to encourage the development of specific driving skills, such as hazard awareness, controlling speed for conditions, as well as preventing impaired driving. From 2008 to 2011, speeding unfortunately remained a factor in more than half of fatal teen driver crashes, and the percentage of teens who died with a blood alcohol level ≥ 0.01 rose from 38 percent to 41 percent.

Several teens recently lost their lives in crashes in Ohio, Texas, and Illinois, a cruel reminder of the near epidemic number of teens killed in preventable car crashes. I hope that our traffic safety colleagues working in communities across the country can tap into this year’s Miles to go report, using the stats and facts to help set state agendas for action guided by MAP- 21 funding recently signed into law by President Obama.