Last week, I was driving with my 14-year-old son and his 15-year-old friend in the car. My son criticized me for not turning left out of parking lot when, according to he-who-has-never-driven, I had “plenty of time” to do so. His friend, who recently got his learner’s permit, piped up and said, “Driving is not as easy as it looks.” You can say that again, friend.
This is National Teen Driver Safety Week, and it is a good time to consider how to keep teenagers safe when they or their inexperienced friends are behind the wheel. Nationally, fatalities involving drivers between ages 15 and 20 increased by 9.7 percent in 2015—a rate that exceeded the 7.2 increase for all vehicle crash fatalities that year. Deaths among this group of young drivers did not increase so dramatically in North Carolina. In 2015, 165 drivers ages 15 to 20 were killed in vehicle crashes in North Carolina, compared to 162 the previous year—an increase of 2 percent. Yet no amount of increase in traffic deaths is welcome. Thus, researchers, policy-makers, parents, and others continue to search for ways to reverse the trend.
Graduating licensing is a good start. North Carolina was one of the first states to adopt graduated licensing for 16-year-olds, adopting a three-stage licensing system in 1997. Under a graduated system, driving privileges are granted in stages. As new teenage drivers gain experience, they are permitted to drive at additional times and with fewer restrictions, provided they are not convicted of a traffic violation during the experience period. Researchers have credited graduated licensing laws with reducing fatal crashes by 15- to 17-year-old drivers by 10 to 30 percent.
Fill out those driving logs. In 2011, the General Assembly added a requirement for driving logs. To obtain a driver’s license, a sixteen-year-old must have completed a driving log detailing a minimum of 60 hours of driving, at least 10 of them at night. To obtain a full provisional license, a young driver must complete a driving log documenting at least 12 hours of driving, six of them at night. This requirement comports with advice from experts who say that most novice drivers don’t have enough practical experience when they are first licensed.
Should driving by older teens (aka “adults”) also be limited? If young North Carolinians are willing to wait until they turn 18, they can bypass the graduated licensing requirements altogether. An 18-year-old may be fully licensed without the benefit of supervised driving experience. The Governor’s Highway Safety Administration (GHSA) recommended in a recent report that graduated licensing be changed to include all drivers under 21. New Jersey has adopted this approach, and Pam Fischer, former director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Safety, wrote the GHSA report. Fischer said that it was important to remember that 18- to 20-year olds could still be inexperienced drivers and, moreover, not have fully developed brains.
What else can we do? The University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Young Drivers (CSYD) has additional suggestions about how to ensure the safety of teen drivers. One recommendation is that high schools require students to remain on campus during the lunch hour. CSYD reports that teen driver crashes increase during the lunch hour as students rush to a place to eat, often with several passengers in the car. Another CSYD recommendation is that high schools start later, at 8:45 a.m. rather than 7:30 a.m. (I’m sure he-who-has-never-driven could get behind this suggestion.) CSYD proposes this as a way to reduce drowsy driving crashes, though it notes that studies examining the relationship between school start times and teen driver crashes have been mixed. One recent study by CYSD researchers and others found a moderate decrease in in crash rates in Forsyth County that corresponded to the school district’s later high school start time. Somewhat surprisingly, the decrease in crashes appeared to have no association with more alert drivers. Crashes decreased in the afternoon, rather than morning, leading the authors to posit that the shift in school start time reduced exposure to crashes by decreasing the hours available for after-school driving.
What not to do. CSYD also has some advice about what doesn’t work. Much of it defies convention.
Brochures, public service announcements and other awareness-raising programs have never been shown to work. They tell teens things they already know; knowledge by itself does not change behavior; and messages rarely reach enough people often enough to soak in.
Scare tactics are ineffective, and may sometimes encourage greater unsafe behavior. There is no evidence that bringing the demolished car to the football field and sharing gory details from accidents will make teens safer. When I was in high school, former UNC defensive back Steve Streater came to talk to us from his wheelchair about the dangers of impaired driving. Streater was an inspirational person, and an excellent speaker. But I don’t think he made me a safer driver. And, even to my undeveloped brain, the disconnect between what he was saying (don’t drive while impaired or you may wind up paralyzed like me) and what actually happened to him (he was paralyzed in a single car accident that did not involve impaired driving) was clear.
Safe driving pledges. CSYD says nothing shows these teen promises are effective. Instead, they reinforce the decisions of those who already plan to drive safely, and do not appear to influence the behaviors of teens at higher risk.
What can parents do? Ride shotgun with your teen while he or she is learning to drive. CSYD says teens need “substantial supervised practice in situations they are likely to encounter once they begin driving unsupervised.” To my chagrin, they appear to really mean it, writing that “this includes bad weather (e.g., heavy rain, snowy/icy roads), darkness, interstate highways, rural roads, heavy traffic, and many other situations and conditions.” CSYD explains that “the more time teens spend driving with a parent in the car, the more likely it is they will encounter situations and events that happen only rarely” such as another driver running a red light. CSYD notes that while some teen crashes do result from risky or careless behavior, most result from inexperience.
Safety equipment helps. Wearing a seatbelt remains the best and cheapest way to prevent injuries from a vehicle crash. Teens also should drive the safest (which usually means the newest) vehicle a family owns. You want your teen behind the wheel of the car with side airbags and crash avoidance systems.