Aggressive driving and teens: Deadly, costly combo

Paul McDonnold

Imagine yourself settling into the passenger seat of a pickup truck. It is morning. Next to you, a 16-year-old driver who's not wearing a seat belt heads toward a highway entrance ramp.

Are you worried?

According to research, you should be. The situation displays several signs of potential aggressive driving, which plays a role in more than half of all traffic deaths. Aggressive driving can include speeding, failing to obey signs, improper turning and general carelessness behind the wheel.

Car wrecks are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, killing 5,000 to 6,000 a year. According to Allstate Insurance, the crash fatality rate of 16- to 19-year-old drivers is four times that of older drivers. These factors are among the reasons why car insurance is so expensive for teen drivers.

Trucks contribute to aggressive driving

Chandra Bhat, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas, led a recent study of aggressive driving on U.S. roadways. The study found that aggressive driving led not only to wrecks, but to more severe injuries as well. Teenagers were more likely than other age groups to drive aggressively. Biologists tell us the human brain is not fully “wired” for impulse control until a person is well into their 20s. Combine this with the inexperience of teen drivers, and you have a recipe for accidents.

Some of Bhat's findings were unexpected:

• Morning was the most likely time for teens to be aggressive behind the wheel, perhaps from pressure to get to school or work, or the irritability of sleepiness.

• A teen driving with one teen passenger was more dangerous than one with two or more teen passengers, perhaps because the driver feels more of a need to interact with a single passenger.

• A teen in a pickup truck was more likely to drive aggressively than a teen in a car. Bhat speculates this may be related to the allure of pickups. In Bhat’s study, a 16- to 17-year-old driving a pickup was twice as likely to be severely injured in a crash as a 16- to 17-year-old driving a car.

Driving without a seat belt also was associated with aggressive driving, as was traveling on high-speed-limit roads, according to Bhat's research.

Encouraging better driving by teens

Fortunately, there is a lot that can be done to promote better driving by teens. Bhat recommends public awareness campaigns and more parental involvement. The Allstate Foundation reports that more than 80 percent of teens list parents as their No. 1 driving influence.

Bhat also touts the benefits of graduated driver's licenses. These allow new drivers to progress through restrictions such as nighttime or unsupervised driving in stages as their skills develop. “The graduated licenses are helping to significantly reduce teen crashes, mainly by taking teens out of the most risky situations,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Rader notes that traditional driver’s ed programs are no substitute. “There’s no evidence that driver’s education reduces teen crashes,” he says. “There’s some evidence that driver’s education has a detrimental effect," by putting drivers on roads at a younger age.

Teen drivers also should get guided experience in a variety of driving situations. Arthur Goodwin, senior research associate with the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, suggests that parents ask themselves: "Do I want my teen to learn how to handle bad weather, darkness, rush-hour traffic or narrow rural roads without me in the car?"

What about those sky-high teen insurance rates?

The fact that teens are more likely than other age groups to drive aggressively and have accidents leads to higher car insurance rates for all teens. But there are steps teens and their parents can take to reduce those rates. The first, of course, is to avoid getting in an accident. Over time, a good driving record acts like a weight around the neck of high premiums, pulling them down.

There also are options for more immediate help. They vary considerably by state and insurer, but good grades and approved safety courses often net a discount. In addition, wireless devices such as those from Tattle Teen can monitor how your teen is driving, and can lead to lower car insurance premiums down the road.

In the meantime, keep in mind these three common errors detected in nearly half of all serious crashes involving teen drivers, as pointed out in a study by The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance:

• Lack of scanning the road to detect and respond to hazards.

• Going too fast for road conditions.

• Being distracted by something inside or outside the vehicle.

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