Distracted Driving and Teenage Drivers: Why Austin Roadways Are More Dangerous Than Ever, and What Parents Can Do About It Right Now

May 30, 2018

In 2015, 2,333 teens aged 16-19 were killed, and 221,313 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries sustained in motor vehicle crashes, the Centers for Disease Control reports.  That means that six teens age 16-19 died every day in motor vehicle collisions in 2015.

Government researchers recently conducted a study to analyze and compare the use of cell phones while driving by teenagers and adults.  The sample of teens performed remarkably well using the cell phone while driving: they were able to dial numbers, answer the phone, send emails and texts, and even browse the internet.  Unfortunately, they blew through 30 percent of the stop signs on the closed course.  Comparatively, the adults did not do well at all with the cell phone applications of the study, but they stopped at every stop sign on the course.

At first blush, the results of this study may not seem surprising.  Driving while using your phone is dangerous, we all know that.  But here are the more interesting findings regarding teen drivers:

“Inexperienced drivers are much more comfortable with taking their eyes off the road,” notes Bruce Simmons-Morton, the study’s coauthor and a senior investigator specializing in teen driving at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). “When teens are faced with a secondary task, like using the phone or reaching for something in the car, they’re not very good at splitting their attention. Secondary tasks are dangerous for all drivers, but adults are less likely to look away from the road while attempting them.” You can read the full text of the study, along with good instructional videos for teenagers on distracted driving, here.

Simmons-Morton says novice drivers of any age are at higher risk for crashes. “Driving is a complex motor activity, just like tennis or golf,” he explains. “It’s easy enough to learn on a functional level, but difficult to master. You can expect to be at your peak after about 10,000 hours of practice. That’s true whether you’re talking about driving or basketball.”

The first 1,000 hours of driving—about six months can be “hugely dangerous” according to Simmons-Morton. His research results indicate that crash rates begin declining after the first 1,000 hours, but it takes years for crash rates to decrease to the level of the average adult.  Usually, after 10,000 hours of driving equates to a lower rate of crashes.

NICHD researchers have studied the difference in crash rates amongst novice drivers in their teens and novice drivers in their early 20’s.  While both groups have high crash rates, the novice drivers in their early 20’s tend to have a steeper decline in their crash rates than their teen counterparts.  According to Simmons-Morton, “All novices are at risk, but especially adolescents. They are inexperienced at things besides driving, like managing passengers and dealing with emotions. They simply have less experience at life and fewer resources to draw upon.”

He also notes important neurological difference between adolescents and young adults. “We know from brain imaging studies that the frontal lobe isn’t fully developed until your early twenties. That means teens might be less likely to make rational decisions in emotional situations. That’s an issue for all of us, but more so for adolescents.”

You are the most visible example to your teenager of the right way to drive.  That means every time you are behind the wheel with your child, make sure to set an example.  Put your cell phone in your pocket, and explain why you put it away every time you drive.  Moms, put your cell phones in your purse and move the purse to the backseat.  When you begin to slow down in anticipation of traffic congestion, explain what you are doing and why.  The same goes for checking mirrors and using turn signals.  “Parents can become better coaches,” says Tim O’Neil, professional driver and owner of Team O’Neil driving school in Dalton, NH. “Coaching can start as soon as a child is legally old enough to sit in the front seat. It’s amazing how much a kid can pick up before he or she steps a foot in driver’s ed class.”

Enter into a “Parent-Child Driving Contract” that clearly sets forth the rules and restrictions applicable to your driving teen.  A good example of an agreement like this can be downloaded from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Impose strict rules regulating the number of passengers your teen is permitted to have in their car.  This is critically important.  Teens who drive with multiple teen passengers face higher risks. According to Simmons-Morton, “Once you have three teens in the car, the crash rate is three to four times higher than with a teen driving alone.” His research also shows that drivers in this group engage in secondary tasks more frequently, which compounds the risk.

Being aware of these issues is the first step to creating a safe learning environment for your teen driver.  Communicate and coach them, and they will be much safer behind the wheel!

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