College and teen drivers: What really works to help avoid crashes?

college and teen drivers

The number one killer of American teenagers is vehicle crashes.

This is because teens lack of driving experience, driving distracted from using a cellphone, chatting with their friends or drinking and driving - and it’s why their insurance rates are much higher than older drivers.

college and teen drivers Russell Henk Russell Henk is program manager and senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in College Station, TX.  

Henk has firsthand experience of teen car crash deaths. In 2001, in his hometown of San Antonio, 10 teenagers were killed in car crashes during a six-week period.

After that, Henk created Teens in the Driver Seat®, a peer-to-peer program that helps young teen drivers practice attentive driving every time they're behind the wheel. The program is an unmitigated success, with 750 Texas high schools participating along with more than 200 high schools in 34 other states.

The focus is on education, information and encouragement using meetings, contest, games and activities to engage students. In 2010, the program expanded to include middle school students.

In 2012, Henk started a program for college-age students called U in the Driver Seat. CarInsuranceQuotes asked Henk what makes the program successful, the crash risks college student drivers face and  advice for parents and drivers.

What is the U in the Driver Seat program about?

It started in 2012 at the request of Texas college students. It came about because we had a number of "graduates" of our high school program, Teens in the Driver Seat, who went to college and told us there's a need for a program directed to college students. 

It's not a prescriptive program -- we don't make them watch videos or sign a "safe driving" pledge. It's not top-down; students run it. It gives them the freedom and responsibility of tailoring something that works for them, in their community.

While law enforcement and policies are very important with helping teens drive safely, that's not what we emphasize. We're more about focusing on the positive aspects of driving -- providing items and incentives -- that will help students avoid high-risk driving situations. We want to inspire, motivate them and equip them to make a difference in their communities. 

Why are college students susceptible to impaired driving?

Students still don't have a lot of driving experience. They do have a great deal of freedom and flexibility in their schedules, and they're on their own a lot more than in high school. So they’re open to experiencing new things. A piece of that  is that they'll experiment with drugs or alcohol. Each increases their chances of being in a car crash.

Students are so busy with classes during the day along with homework, activities and maybe a job, that they're often tired and exhausted – plus, they lack the driving skill that goes with experience. Combine these factors and crash risk skyrockets -- according to the National Safety Council, lack of driving experience coupled with driving in the dark is the highest crash risk.

Impaired driving traditionally refers to a driver using drugs or alcohol behind the wheel. But anything that keeps a student from giving 100 percent of his or her attention to driving also meets the definition of impaired.

What's sad is that often a conscientious, well-regarded college student isn't drinking or using drugs, and driving -- they just made a mistake in driving at night when they were tired, and crashed.

What are the strengths of a peer-to-peer program?

We discovered this with Teens in the Driver Seat. My initial research showed that positive peer pressure made a strong difference in the success of programs that steered teens away from using drugs and smoking.

So I thought, "Why not see if it will work with helping teens drive safely?" It's true with college students, too -- hearing about the "drive safely" message has much more impact if it's coming from the mouth of a peer. If it comes from a parent, it sounds more like nagging.

What successes are you seeing with this program?

It just started in 2012, so at this point we're still collecting data. The Clery Act requires each college campus to document when laws are broken -- and that includes underage drinking, driving under the influence and public intoxication.

We're working with campuses and will use that data as a foundation. In a few years, we can see if metrics are improving. 

Do you have any advice for college-age drivers (and their parents)?

Students should be careful about driving after dark, when they're tired and when they have been drinking. Instead of crashing your car, think about crashing -- that is, staying -- overnight at a friend's place whom you trust.

It's probably news to parents -- it was to me -- that car crashes are the No. 1 cause of injury and death in teens and people in their early 20s. I suspect most parents are thinking more about the dangers of suicide, drugs or a crime situation. Car crashes probably isn't "top of mind."

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