Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Risky teen behavior is a major contributor to such accidents.
Parents face big obstacles when trying to get their teens to abandon such dangerous driving habits. But parents may have more influence than they think.
Following are five startling facts – including one that is surprising in a good way – that affect teen risk behind the wheel -- and five ways in which parents can help their children become safer drivers.
1. 68 percent of teens admit to texting while driving.
Sending or reading a text takes a driver's eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
If you are driving 55 miles per hour, that is equivalent to traveling 100 yards -- the length of a football field -- without seeing the road.
While 62 percent of teen drivers view texting and driving as distracting, 68 percent admit they still text while behind the wheel, according to a survey from Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD).
Teen safety tip: Enroll your teen in a driver safety course
Several insurers -- including Liberty Mutual, Allstate and State Farm -- offer teen driver safety courses.
American Family Insurance's Teen Safe Driver Program uses an in-car camera to record erratic behavior, such as cornering too fast or extreme braking and accelerating.
The video is reviewed and scored, and parents and teens get feedback and tips about improving behavior.
American Family Insurance research finds the drivers who initially score worst on the testing can reduce erratic behaviors by 70 percent.
2. Nearly 1 million teens drink and drive.
Every day, nearly 30 people are killed in the
Still, in 2011 almost 1 million high school teens drank alcohol before driving, according to the most recent CDC statistics.
Despite that grim reality, things are improving. Since 1991, the percentage of teens driving after drinking has been slashed by more than half, the CDC reports.
Teen safety tip: Develop a plan to encourage sobriety
"Parents can set a good example by not driving after drinking," says Stephen Gray Wallace, senior adviser for policy, research and education at Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). Wallace also urges parents not to let teens drink -- even during special occasions -- and to enter into written "social contracts" where the teen pledges to remain sober behind the wheel, and the parent pledges to offer support.
3. Only 54 percent of high school students always wear seat belts.
Seat belts save 13,000 lives every year, according to NHTSA.
Yet, just 54 percent of high school students report they always wear seat belts when riding in a car driven by someone else, according to the CDC.
That is the worst record of any age group, and the consequences can be deadly. In 2010, 56 percent of drivers ages 15 to 20 who were killed after drinking and driving were not wearing a seat belt when they crashed, the CDC says.
Teen safety tip: Work with teen organizations to create change
Teens are their own best advocates for increased seat belt use, Wallace says.
"When kids speak up, their peers listen," Wallace says.
Wallace encourages parents, teachers and others to influence organizations such as SADD, the YMCA and YWCA, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to work with teens to get the word out about the importance of seat belt use.
4. 42 percent of teens turn up the radio so loud they can't hear.
At some point, you've probably been stuck at a traffic light while being serenaded by the "thump, thump, thump" of overpowering bass from the vehicle in the lane next to you.
Forty-two percent of teens say they turn up the radio so loud they can't hear vehicles nearby, according to a survey commissioned by Ford Motor Company.
In addition, 52 percent admit to listening to music with an iPod or other MP3 player while driving.
Teen safety tip: Discuss the potential danger of loud music
Jim Graham is manager of Ford Driving Skills for Life, a program that helps teach safe driving skills to newly licensed teens. The program stresses the importance of "situational awareness" -- the ability to know what is going on around you.
"If the radio is so loud they cannot hear what is going on around them, they have poor situational awareness and increased risk of a crash," Graham says.
Graham urges parents to sit down with their teens and discuss the danger of this type of distraction.
In addition, many Ford vehicles have a feature called "Ford MyKey" that allows parents to limit the volume on the vehicle's entertainment system to 44 percent of maximum.
5. 74 percent of teens support graduated driver licensing laws.
Here is one shocking fact that is actually a pleasant surprise. Despite several negative driving behaviors, 74 percent of teens support laws that keep them off the roads during risky times, according to a study by the Allstate Foundation.
Such laws -- known as graduated driver licensing laws -- are now in place in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to the National Safety Council (
Teen safety tip: Remain vigilant
Graduated driver licensing laws help keep teens safe, but parents should not let down their guard, says Kathy Bernstein,
She urges parents to sit in the passenger seat while their child drives for at least 30 minutes each week after the teen receives his or her license.
"Drive with your teen for at least the first year," Bernstein says.