The idea of putting a young and inexperienced person in charge of a piece of machinery capable of killing and maiming not just themselves and their passengers, but also other drivers, is a sobering thought. However, by letting teenagers behind the wheel of the family car with just their basic driving lessons, that is exactly what is happening.
While the prospect of taking a driving test may seem daunting for a young person, in reality getting a license is all too easy and can be attained with very little driving time, especially for those with a natural aptitude. Of course, teenagers invariably promise to take care when out on the roads, but many will take a call or text on their cell phone, a behavior which according to research increases the chances of crashing 23-fold.1 A casual attitude towards driving is part of the reason why a high number of teenagers have accidents, but a lack of experience also contributes. Statistics show that teenagers are more likely than not to be involved in a collision in the first 12 months of getting their license.2
16-19 year olds represent the age group with the highest risk of crashing compared to any other driver age group, with the incidence of crashes being four times higher. Young men represent a higher risk than young female drivers, with nearly double the mortality rate for male drivers and passengers. The total cost of injuries sustained in auto accidents for males is also far higher, with those aged between 15-24 accounting for $19 billion worth of costs, compared to $7 billion of injuries for their female counterparts.3
Research shows that the lack of experience manifests itself by younger drivers being slower to recognize hazards or overestimating their ability to deal with dangerous driving situations. However, speed also plays a part as 37% of crashes involved teenagers who were exceeding the speed limit at the time of the incident. Having male passengers also of teenage years in the auto heightened the likelihood of delinquent behavior. Speeding is more commonplace but also tailgating the car in front.
Other preventable factors that studies show influence both the likelihood of an accident and the outcome are wearing a seat belt and drinking alcohol before driving.4 More than one in four (26%) of fatalities resulting from accidents involving 15-20 year olds involved alcohol. In addition, the presence of alcohol in the blood makes it far more likely for a teenager to be involved in a car accident than any other driver age group. A survey of teenage drivers and passengers highlighted the extent of the problem when one in ten admitted to driving after drinking alcohol, while three in every ten said they had ridden with a fellow teenage driver who had been drinking in the same period.5
The wearing of seatbelts has also proven to be unpopular with younger passengers as research has shown the lowest rate of buckling up amongst teenagers compared to any other age group, with just 10% wearing their seatbelt when traveling in a vehicle. However, in one study, nearly three quarters of teenage drivers who died as a result of a crash involving alcohol were also shown not to have been wearing their seatbelt.6
The most tragic of all is that many of these deaths and injuries were preventable by simple measures such as driving within the speed limits, wearing seat belts and not drinking alcohol before driving. This is where parents are able to play a crucial role in helping their teenager become safer on the road and reduce the risk to themselves, their passengers and other road users.7
Some parents only allow their teenager to drive if certain conditions are met, gradually lifting these restrictions as the young driver gains experience on the road and proves to have a responsible attitude. When starting out, parents may decide to only allow their teenager to drive in daylight hours and with no more than one passenger in the car. As their road time increases and with no incidents, the parent slowly allows the criteria to be expanded; perhaps driving at night but not in rainy or foggy conditions and so on until finally the teenager is permitted to drive without restriction.
However, some parents of teenage drivers find it useful to have some rules that are fixed, such as never drinking alcohol while driving and always fastening the seatbelt before starting the engine. If the parent catches the teenager breaking any of the agreed conditions, access to the car should be removed for anything from a day or two to a month, depending on the severity of the transgression.
An alternative to simply agreeing the basis upon which the teenager is allowed the use of the auto is drawing up a parent-teen contract that sets out the conditions for both sides. While this may sound excessively formal, some insurers provide discounts for young drivers who have signed a contract with their parents and just ask for sight of the document to verify that it exists.
Having a written contract in place also makes for far fewer family arguments as both the parent and the teen know what they are entitled to and what rules they must abide by. It is a good idea to include how privileges can be earned by the young driver and how they will ultimately earn full independence. Being able to see their route to having their restrictions lifted can be a good incentive to drive responsibly, even when subjected to peer pressure. Conversely, detailing what will happen if there is any infringement of the rules or irresponsible behavior once all restrictions have been lifted is also a good idea to prevent any disagreements over potential sanctions at a later stage. Laminating the agreement and posting it on the wall is a good way to not only serve as a reminder but also make it easy to refer to during discussions.
It is important to consider all aspects of driving and not just the obvious ones such as driving misdemeanors. Equipment such as cell phones, car stereos or iPods can be very distracting. Research has shown that around 28% of all accidents involve the use of a cell phone, equivalent to 1.6 million crashes, with 200,000 additional incidents caused by texting.
Other simpler ways to help your teenager stay safe on the roads include arming them with a good basic knowledge in case something happens when they are out and about. Showing them how to change a tire, check oil and water levels as well as tire pressure will help them deal with any problems they may encounter with the vehicle while they are driving. Explaining the risks of clutter in the car and how trash could be dangerous is another important lesson to explain.
Parents who think their offspring may need a little more prompting to behave themselves in the car could opt for a model that provides technology to configure various features. Some car manufacturers now provide keys which allow parents to limit the top speed available, set seatbelt reminders which chime continuously until the driver buckles up, and lowering the volume of the radio.
To summarize, the top 10 ways to cut the risks of your teen crashing the car are:
While allowing your teenage driver out on the roads can be a stressful time, with the right support and a slow and steady approach, the risks can be greatly reduced.