Teen drivers' progress slowed by texting habits

Allie Johnson

Parents can stress out a little less about handing the car keys over to their teens this year. New information from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows high school students’ vehicle safety habits have improved a bit.

The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey – which measures behaviors that are most dangerous to young people, such as drinking alcohol, carrying weapons and having sex – found that the steady improvements in teen driver safety of the past two decades continued in 2011.

However, technology is causing some setbacks: A high percentage of teens admitted sending text messages or emailing while driving, according to the CDC survey, which included questions about these behaviors for the first time.

The improvements are good news, but there’s still work to be done – especially on distracted driving, according to Erin Sauber-Schatz, a senior research scientist at the CDC.

“We know that distracted driving is a risk factor for crashes – it takes your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel and your attention away from the task at hand,” she says. “Any percentage of distracted driving is something that needs to be addressed.”

Teens still take risks on the road
For the survey, the CDC gave 15,000 quizzes to high school students – who confessed to behaviors they might not want to tell Mom and Dad about. Risky behaviors admitted by some teens include:

  • Riding with a driver who’s been drinking. Almost one-fourth (24 percent) of teens surveyed had, in the month before the survey, ridden at least once in a car with a driver who'd been drinking booze. That number dropped from 40 percent in 1991 and 28 percent in 2009.
  • Drinking and driving. During the month before the survey, 8 percent of teens said they'd driven a vehicle at least once after drinking alcohol. More boys – nearly 10 percent – admitted drinking and driving than girls, at nearly 7 percent. These numbers held fairly steady from 1991 to 1997, then decreased steadily from almost 17 percent in 1997 to nearly 10 percent in 2009 before hitting the current low.
  • Failing to wear a seat belt. Almost 8 percent of students said they rarely or never wore a seat belt when riding in a car driven by someone else. Boys were more likely, at almost 9 percent, to admit to this than girls (nearly 6 percent). That number has been decreasing steadily for the past 20 years – in 1991 it was at nearly 26 percent, and in 2009 at close to 10 percent.
  • Being distracted by a screen. Almost one-third of students surveyed (32.8 percent) admitted that in the month before the survey, they'd sent a text message or email while driving. High school seniors – at 58 percent – were more likely to do this than students in other grades.

“It really is those learning years that they’re really at risk, as they’re learning how to be safe drivers,” Sauber-Schatz says.

Parents can curb risky behavior

Experts say there’s still a long way to go in keeping teens – and the other drivers they encounter on the roads – safe.

“It’s been improving every year, but teens still are over-represented in motor vehicle crashes, which are still the leading cause of death for teens. So there’s work to be done,” says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

In the meantime, experts say, parents can greatly influence their kids’ driving safety. Here are six tips:

  1. Learn your state’s licensing laws. Most have some form of graduated licensing – in which new drivers start with a learner’s permit, followed by a period with certain restrictions. “Parents need to know what those restrictions are,” Harsha says.
  1. Parents should enforce restrictions, such as those on the number of passengers and on nighttime driving, she says. “Risks double with each passenger – if a teen is driving with one passenger, the risk is doubled, and with two it’s quadrupled,” Harsha says. “And nighttime is the most dangerous time to be driving.”
  2. Spend plenty of time practicing with your teen – especially during the first year, when teens are most likely to have a crash because of inexperience, Sauber-Schatz says. She notes that the CDC recommends 30 to 50 hours of supervised driving. “Practice on a variety of roads at different times of day and in various weather and traffic conditions,” she recommends.
  3. Have a serious talk about the dangers of drinking and driving. Parents can find from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, state transportation agencies or auto insurance companies. For teens, it can be helpful to bring up the fact that drinking and driving can cause disfigurement. “Teens are actually very afraid of being disfigured, so the graphic stuff does have an impact, especially if you address the issue of disfigurement,” Harsha says.
  4. Chat about the dangers of texting, emailing and talking on cellphones. Thirty-two states have banned the use of electronic devices, including cellphones, by novice drivers. “The ideal thing is for teens not to text or use their cellphones and drive,” Harsha says.
  5. Check out online resources such as the CDC’s Parents Are the Key website, which offers information, resources and a sample parent-teen driving agreement.

No detour around high premiums

Not only do parents need to be concerned about safety, they also need to worry about how a teen driver will affect their wallets. Parents who add a new teen driver to their car insurance policies can expect premiums to go up by 50 percent to 100 percent, according to Jeanne Salvatore, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. But there are a few ways parents can save:

  • Look into discounts. Most insurers offer discounts for high school students who earn good grades. For example, Allstate’s Good Student Discount offers a 10 percent to 20 percent discount, depending on the state. GEICO offers a 15 percent discount, usually to students with at least a B average.
  • Send them to school. Some insurers offer discounts after a teen completes a recognized driver’s education program, Salvatore says.
  • Get a car that gets good rates. On its website, State Farm offers a tool that uses claims data to give customers an idea of whether their car, or one they’re considering buying their teen, would cost to insure.

Salvatore says helping your teen become a better driver can bring peace of mind as well as economic benefits. Kids who drive carefully and avoid accidents and tickets will see premiums decrease. For example, Allstate offers a 5 percent premium reduction for each six months you stay accident-free; the insurer recommends offering to share the savings with your teen driver to help spur safe driving.

“All else being equal, if you have the same car and stay in the same location,” Salvatore says, “with each year they have a safe driving record, you’ll see those rates start to go down.”

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