Curbing the risks of teen driving

Nick DiUlio

We know that thousands of teenage drivers die each year in car crashes. What remains somewhat of a puzzle is why. A new study from the National Institutes of Health may provide some answers.

According to the study’s lead author, Bruce Simons-Morton, novice teen drivers are almost four times as likely to end up in a car accident or close calls as adult drivers. Moreover, compared with older, experienced drivers, risky driving behavior is five times more prevalent among teens who are new behind the wheel.

“If you think about driving as a complex physical and psychological task, the crash rates we observed look a lot like the classic learning curve,” Simons-Morton says. “And it’s not just about learning how to drive the vehicle. It’s also about developing safe driving judgment and learning how to process a lot of information at once while you’re behind the wheel.”

Teen drivers act more responsibly when an adult is with them in the car, according to a National Institutes of Health study.
Teens vs. adults on the road

According to Simons-Morton, this study is the first “naturalistic assessment” of risky teen driving. Rather than have teens respond to a survey, he and his colleagues observed teens' driving habits, initially through technology installed in their cars.

For 18 months from 2006 to 2008, the National Institutes of Health team studied 42 newly licensed teens -- 22 females and 20 males who attended high school or were homeschooled in Virginia. To provide a comparative backdrop, the study also assessed the driving habits of 55 parents operating the same vehicles.

Here are six of the study’s most fascinating findings:

  1. Over the study period, teens experienced significantly higher rates of crashes or near-crashes compared with parents. The tally: 37 crashes and 242 near-crashes compared for the teens, and two crashes and 32 close calls among the adults.
  2. Crash rates rapidly declined after the first six to nine months, even though the rates remained much higher for teens than for experienced adults driving the same vehicles.
  3. Distractions such as texting, operating an iPod or talking on a cellphone while driving were the leading causes of crashes.
  4. Gravitational forces (or g-forces) played a big role. When teens are behind the wheel, g-forces are significantly higher, which resulted in teens taking sharper turns 25 to 30 times more often than their parents.
  5. Risky driving behavior is reduced dramatically when an adult accompanies a teen driver. “When there’s a parent in the car, they drive like an adult,” Simons-Morton says. “When they’re alone, they drive much more recklessly.”
  6. According to Simons-Morton, there is “no support for the contention that risky driving declines with experience and that adolescents learn to reduce risky behavior.” His hypothesis is that rather than reducing risky behavior, teens essential get better at managing it.
How parents should respond

Simons-Morton says his study should accent the need for parents to be more actively involved in their teens’ driving.

“Our findings suggest parents have a responsibility with their newly licensed teen to set limits and hold their teens highly accountable,” he says. “We don’t give a kid his first bike and say, ‘OK, go ride across town.’ Why not give limits on auto driving as well?”

Here are five tips for protecting your teen driver:

  1. Educate them about the dangers of driving and hold them accountable. “Zero tolerance for alcohol is a good start,” says Richard McGrath, president and CEO of McGrath Insurance Group in Massachusetts. “Also consider not allowing your teen to drive at night or with other teens in the car until your teen has had sufficient experience and you believe he or she will drive responsibly."
  2. Consider installing monitoring technology in the car. Russ Rader, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says the primary deterrent to risky behavior is a parent riding shotgun. “So why not extend that period of supervision even when you’re not in the car,” Rader says. “Something like DriveCam, which is a video system that captures audio and video of what’s going on in the car, might make teens think twice before driving recklessly.
  3. Support -- and enforce -- graduated driver's licensing laws. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, state laws that set restrictions for new drivers on such things as the number of passengers allowed in the vehicle, cellphone use and nighttime driving drastically improves teen driving safety. “Parents are the main enforcers of graduated licensing rules, but unfortunately they don’t always enforce them,” Rader says. To find out about your state’s graduated driver's licensing laws, visit the Governors Highway Safety Association website.
  4. Actively teach your teen how to drive. Susan Kuczmarski, author of "The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go," suggests asking your teen to talk out loud as you drive, narrating what a good driver should be seeing and doing to drive safely. “Listen as your teen describes your driving and check for any omitted steps,” Kuczmarski says. “When a teen can describe your good driving habits as you drive, you'll know that he is ready to get behind the wheel.
  5. Have your teen sign a contract that pledges he or she will drive safely, and be prepared to enforce it. “Be willing to take away the car privileges for any infraction of agreed-upon rules,” parenting expert and author Susan Tordella says. “For example, speeding tickets mean a loss of driving privileges for a certain period of time.”
Teen drivers and car insurance

Given the large number of accidents involving teens, it’s no surprise that car insurance is expensive for them. The Insurance Information Institute says adding a teen to the parents' policy can hike premiums by 50 percent to 100 percent. There are, however, a few steps you can take to reduce premiums:

  • Make sure your teen is properly covered. According to McGrath, the most important part of an auto policy for teens is coverage for bodily injury and property damage. He recommends bodily injury limits of $100,000 per person and $300,000 per incident or $250,000 per person and $500,000 per incident. For property damage limits, he suggests $200,000 or $250,000.

    “In today’s litigious society, inadequate limits could cause financial hardship for teen drivers and their families,” McGrath says.

  • Consider the safety and condition of the vehicle itself. Rader says premiums for optional collision and comprehensive coverage will be lower if your teen drives a safe car that isn't worth a lot. "Larger-sized family sedans are not only best for safety, but they can also reduce the cost of insurance,” he says.
  • Car insurance premiums for a teen can be reduced if the young driver is insured by the same company as his or her parents. McGrath says most insurers discount premiums for teens who maintain at least a "B" average in school and if they take a recognized advanced driver training course in addition to driver’s education.
“The real key, though, to keeping premiums low for teen drivers is to drive safely,” McGrath says.

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