Curbing Teen Driving Dangers

US News

Angst isn't just for teenagers. Their parents get to go along for the ride--especially when their teen's behind the wheel. The fear that a young driver will be anything short of conscientious while operating thousands of pounds of machinery is well warranted. Car crashes are the leading killer of American teens, and everything from speeding and alcohol-use to the distractions of cell phones or friends in the car contribute to this sobering statistic. Teen drivers are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than all other drivers, with first-year drivers at the greatest risk, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

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With that in mind, several groups are making use of the back-to-school season to teach teens safe driving. Last week, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson pronounced Sept. 19 "No Text on Board Pledge Day," urging Americans to vow never to text and drive. He was joined by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has made the fight against distracted driving a hallmark of his tenure, along with George Washington University President Steven Knapp and Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The "No Text on Board Pledge Day, which, notably, occurred two days before the release of the iPhone5, is part of AT&T's broader "It Can Wait" campaign, which has a bevy of partners targeting teens to stop texting and driving. Through the website, www.itcanwait.org, AT&T has made available resources such as posters, fact sheets, online texting-and-driving simulators, and a documentary called "The Last Text" about teens whose lives were ended or upended by texting while driving. AT&T also provides a cell phone "drive mode" that alerts others that the user is driving and will respond later to texts and E-mails.

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Yet, while teens are the most distracted of all drivers on the road, the reasons for their car accidents go far beyond the diversions of cell phones. They result from "inexperience and immaturity," which show up in a range of risky behaviors, according to NHTSA. In response, the agency has prioritized promoting seat belt use, restricting teenage access to alcohol, and supporting graduated driver's licenses, which ease teenagers onto the road. Tips for parents on setting rules for their young drivers and other resources are available at www.nhtsa.gov.

Teens who say their parents are supportive and set rules about driving are half as likely to be involved in a crash as teens with less-engaged parents, according to State Farm, which is trying to harness the power of parental involvement to encourage teens to drive safely. "While scare tactics work with some, other teens can have the tendency to tune out," the agency stated last month in a press release.

To that end, State Farm launched "Celebrate My Drive" Sept. 15, with events in 13 cities across North America, aimed at, as it states, celebrating one's coming-of-driving-age, rather than fearing it. A festival of games, giveaways, and learning tools, Celebrate My Drive was envisioned to "really mark this momentous occasion in a teen's life in a very positive way," says Chris Mullen, director of technology research at State Farm.

Through its website, State Farm provides virtual simulators called "Road Trips," a teaching tool for teens and parents to use together, and "Road Aware," which helps teens anticipate road hazards--scanning the road ahead for pedestrians, for example. In fact, failing to recognize road hazards is the leading cause of crashes by teen drivers, the group says. Its 2010 report on teen driving, produced with the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, found that more than half of teen drivers killed in a crash were speeding, and nearly 4 out of 10 had a blood-alcohol level of at least .01 percent--anything at or above .08 percent is above the legal limit. Among those killed in crashes by teen drivers, 56 percent of drivers weren't wearing seat belts, and 65 percent of passengers weren't buckled up.

When it comes to texting and driving, although 97 percent of teens say they know it's dangerous, 43 percent admit they do it anyway, according to a new survey by AT&T. Meanwhile, 77 percent of teens say that adults tell them not to text and drive but they do it themselves "all the time." More than 40 percent of teens say they see their parents read or send E-mail or text while driving. How dangerous is it? Drivers are 23 times more likely to crash if they text behind the wheel, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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Bottom line: Parents need to not just teach safe driving behaviors, but also model them. And start before kids are already driving. "They're really watching you. They're watching what you're doing," Mullen says. "And those are excellent teaching moments."

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