The effect of 'car surfing' on car insurance

Lori Johnston

Watching a character in a movie or TV show hang onto the side of a car in an escape attempt or death-defying stunt can be exhilarating for viewers. In reality, the action should come with a “do not attempt” warning, because some teens are climbing onto cars and holding on for their lives.

Thrill-seeking teens are making what’s known as car surfing a more common occurrence on roadways, but the activity can end in disaster.

With car surfing, teens ride on the roof or hood of a moving vehicle, while someone else is driving. But when the car stops or breaks, causing someone to lose their grip and fall, car surfing can be deadly or result in severe consequences. Injuries range from brain trauma to broken bones to fractured skulls to internal bleeding to abrasions from asphalt and rough roadways.

Some teens are inspired by stunts they’ve seen on TV, at the movies, or by amateurs posting videos on YouTube and other websites. Others do it for potential publicity or because of peer pressure, trying to achieve a badge of honor among friends.

It’s just another “stupid human trick,” and it can’t be done safely, says Dr. Thomas Esposito, chief of the Division of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care and Burns in the Department of Surgery at Loyola University Medical Center, in the Chicago area.

“There is no moderate amount of car surfing. It’s an all-or-none phenomenon,” he says. “It really can cause some serious damage, and even if it is not serious immediate damage, we can see long-term small effects.”

Auto insurance rates are considerably higher for teens because they're viewed as a greater risk, says Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. Car surfing most likely would fall into the category of factors leading to higher rates.

“Whether you’re talking about car surfing or texting or putting too many passengers in a car or street racing, whatever the activity is, we’re talking about a group of drivers who are inexperienced and prone to risk taking,” says Bernie Fette, a spokesman for the Texas Transportation Institute, whose Teens in the Drivers Seat initiative is a safety program for youth.

Consequences of car surfing

At least 99 people died or sustained serious injuries from car surfing from 1990 to 2008, according to federal research that relied on newspaper reports. More than half of those cases were fatal. Injuries were reported in 31 states, where car surfing is more common among males.

“It’s a concern if there’s even just one person doing it,” says Angie Rinock, a spokeswoman for State Farm.

Car surfing injuries can happen from vehicles moving as slow as 5 mph to as fast as 80 mph, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In some cases, people try to jump off the cars.

Hannah Huntoon, 16, suffered a traumatic brain injury in an April 2012 car-surfing incident, which resulted in having a portion of her skull removed (the skull was scheduled to be replaced in late June). The Florida teenager, who doesn’t remember the accident, has spoken out about the dangers of car surfing.

“I was disappointed in myself,” Huntoon said during a news conference at St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Fla.

The driver, Megan Jacobson, told WPTV in West Palm Beach, that people can learn from what happened to Huntoon. "But at the same time," she said, "it never should have happened in the first place, and if I could take it back, I would.”

The CDC looked into the ages of those involved in car surfing and found:

  • The average age of persons injured from car surfing is 17.6 years old.
  • The most often-injured group is teen males age 15 to 19.

“The invincibility factor is huge, and in teens, it is particularly strong in that they don’t see this as ever happening to them, they’re smarter than the guy or the girl down the street,” Esposito says. “They just don’t think about dying.”

If people survive, head injuries – such as brain contusions, skull fractures and concussions – can result in everything from memory loss to behavioral problems (such as changes in personality or more impulsive behavior) to severe issues such as paralysis. Loss of consciousness also can occur.

Esposito also has seen “road rash” in victims – abrasions and lacerations that result from someone sliding down the car and being dragged over a rough surface.

Stay inside the vehicle

Car surfing isn’t as common as other dangers, such as texting, which have resulted in new laws to keep drivers safe. Safe driving advocates and insurers encourage parents to discuss with their children these and other dicey behaviors by teen drivers, which contribute to more expensive insurance premiums.

Laws and incentives that stop car surfing are needed to add to educational efforts to change bad behavior on roadways, Esposito says. Huntoon’s mom, Constance Huntoon, plans to work with Florida state Rep. Irving “Irv” Slosberg, to push for harsher penalties for car surfers, The Palm Beach Post reported.

Insurers should increase premiums when a driver is involved in activities such as car surfing, Esposito says. While teen driver safety programs provide auto insurance discounts, programs such as Steer Clear by State Farm do not specifically address car surfing.

“We’re not necessarily saying, ‘We give you a discount if you don’t car surf,’ but we are able to build that behavior of being responsible,” Rinock says.

Being involved in an incident still could impact policyholders.

“It definitely would be something that would cause us to take a look at the situation,” Rinock says. “Are we going to say rates are going up or (we will) cancel (your policy)? It’s possible.”

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