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Teen driving: 5 lessons from 3 deadly crashes

Rachel Hartman

In March 2013, three car crashes involving teens resulted in 15 deaths and four totaled vehicles, and community members asking, “What went wrong?”

The streak started March 10 in Warren, Ohio, where eight teens in a speeding SUV crashed into a guardrail and landed upside down in a swampy pond. Only two survived.

Later that day, in Dumas, Texas, a Chevy SUV with five teenagers inside collided with a gas tanker. The driver of the tanker was injured; all five teens died.

The following day, a car carrying four teens near Wilmington, Ill., plunged into a creek; all four were killed.

These fatal events shed light on key safety factors that can greatly affect teen drivers. “Teen traffic deaths are just like combat deaths,” says Phil Berardelli, author of “Safe Young Drivers: A Guide for Parents and Teens.” “They’re sudden, violent, and they befall the young and healthy.”

Here are five lessons teens – and their parents – can take away from the crashes. 

1.  Watch the passenger count.

Each of the crashes involved a driver and numerous young passengers.

Having passengers under age 21 can increase risks for the driver, according to an AAA study released in May 2012. The study looked at risks for 16-year-old and 17-year-old drivers. According to the study, having one passenger younger than 21 in the vehicle increased the driver’s risk of being killed in a crash by 44 percent, when measured by the number of miles driven.  

Having two passengers younger than 21 doubled the driver’s risk of being killed in a crash, and having three or more passengers younger than 21 roughly quadrupled the driver’s risk of being killed in a crash, according to the study.

To avoid risks, teens should reduce or eliminate riders. For at least the first six months after getting their licenses, teens shouldn’t be allowed to carry passengers, Berardelli says. Under graduated driver’s licensing (GDL) laws, 45 states and the District of Columbia have some level of restrictions regarding the number of passengers that can be in a vehicle with a new driver.

In California, for the first 12 months after a driver receives a provisional license (or until the driver turns 18 years old), no passengers under 20 are allowed.

2. Pay attention to the weather.

The Illinois crash took place on a bridge that spans a creek. Water may have been rushing over the roadway just before the bridge at the time of the crash, NBC News reported. Snow and ice had been melting in the area, which may have led to water runoff on the road.

Both visibility and traction should be taken into account when driving in various conditions, says Debbie Swanson, head coach at MasterDrive, a program that emphasizes training through behind-the-wheel practice. Dry, clean pavement offers the best traction, and water can reduce traction by 40 percent.

When on the road in these conditions, a driver should increase following distance, Swanson advises. Say you usually keep a distance of three seconds between your car and the vehicle in front of you. As conditions worsen, you’ll want to increase that time. For sand and gravel, keep a distance of four seconds between your car and the vehicle in front of you. For water, increase the following distance to six seconds. 

3. Buckle up.

In the Ohio wreck, the occupants of the vehicle were not wearing seat belts.

Riding in a car without buckling your seat belt may arise from a teen’s attitude toward driving, says Shelby Fix, who’s known as the “Teen Car Coach.”  “Most teen drivers think they are invincible,” she says.

To make sure the driver and passengers are protected, the driver must set concrete rules, Fix says. Here’s one to try: “The car doesn’t move until everyone is wearing seat belts.”

4. Scan for hazards.

One of the two survivors of the Ohio crash told investigators the driver sped up as the vehicle rounded a stretch of road known as “Dead Man’s Curve.”

Of all crashes involving teens driving, three-fourths result from errors by teen drivers, according to a study by researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. In the study, the researchers found that not properly scanning was one of the most common errors that resulted in a crash.

Proper scanning involves observing the surroundings far ahead of the vehicle and side-to-side, not just immediately in front of the cars, says Dr. Flaura Winston, founder and scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Hazards might involve the traffic in front of your vehicle, such as a car farther down the road that brakes suddenly. They can come from the side of the road, such as a pedestrian who is about to cross the street at a crosswalk. A hazard might even involve part of the road itself, such as a sharp drop-off.    

State Farm’s Road Aware program introduces new drivers to a variety of potentially hazardous situations. The web-based training program helps teach them to adjust their driving for hazards, such as slowing down for a sharp curve.

5. Keep lines of communication open.

Not all of the parents knew where their children were when the crashes occurred. In Ohio, the mother of one of the teens killed said her son had told her he was spending the night at his best friend’s house. His best friend, who also was killed, had said the same thing – that he was spending the night with this mother’s son. However, the friends weren’t at either home; instead, they were riding in a SUV at daybreak.

To keep lines of communication open, parents should have frank conversations with their teens about driving – even before a kid gets behind the wheel, says Angela Patterson, manager of the Teens Drive Smart program at tire manufacturer Bridgestone. Parents and teens also can sign a driving contact. Such a contract can downloaded from

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