Leading Cause of Teen Death: Teen Driving
Teenagers think they know more than adults and consider themselves invincible. Today's teens are so worldly, we're sometimes fooled into believing they are more mature than they are. But teens are still children and they still make stupid mistakes, some of which are fatal. Adults do stupid things too. And children notice.
Reading the headlines, it might seem that the biggest killer of teenagers is drugs. This isn't the case. According to a study conducted by Safe Kids Worldwide and made possible by a $2 million grant from General Motors Foundation, more teens die in motor vehicle crashes than from any other cause of death. The toll is about 2,500 per year or 8 out of every 1,000 teens.
Fatalities are split between teen drivers (56 percent) and passengers (44 percent). In half of these fatalities, teens were not wearing seat belts. While the number of fatalities has decreased 56 percent since 2002, behavior has not changed much.
Safe Kids found that half the teen passengers and slightly less than half of the teen drivers who die in fatal crashes are not buckled up; sadly that hasn't changed over the last decade. Only about 10 percent of passengers and six percent of drivers are unrestrained in non-fatal crashes.
In interviews with about a thousand teens between the ages of 13 and 19, Safe Kids explored behaviors and thoughts when they ride in cars with other teens. They learned that teens start riding more regularly with other teens at around age 15. About 10 percent of the 13-year-olds traveled in cars with other teens every day or a few times week, compared to 23 percent of 16 year olds. Three times as many 16-year-olds die in crashes as 13-year-olds.
Past research has shown that compared to teens who are not transporting any teen passengers, having one teen passenger in a car with a teen driver increases the risk of a crash by 44 percent. Two passengers doubles the risk, and three or more passengers increases the risk four-fold.
Using a seatbelt is one of the easiest ways to prevent fatalities: Safe Kids found that many of the teens who did not use seat belts every time are more likely to have parents who don't always use them.
Their top reasons for not using seat belts were that they forgot or weren't in the habit (34 percent), they did not use them if they weren't traveling far (16 percent), they were uncomfortable (11 percent), or they were in a hurry (five percent). Teens interviewed think the main reason why other teens don't buckle up is because they aren't going far.
Teens learn these habits from their peers, but they also watch their parents' behavior. A number of teens surveyed reported seeing their parents unbuckled, texting while driving, talking on the phone, speeding, or under the influence. While 49 percent said they felt unsafe driving with another teen driver, 31 percent said they felt unsafe driving with an adult.
Parents can influence their teenagers' behaviors by driving responsibly always in front of their kids. That means always buckling up so that it becomes a habit with children before they ever start to drive.
In addition, Safe Kids advocates for strong public policies. Graduated driver's license programs and night driving curfews have lowered risks. Other best practices that need to be considered as part of the licensing procedures include zero tolerance for alcohol, a ban on texting and use of distracting technologies, limiting the number of teen passengers, no violations of mandatory seat belt laws for drivers and passengers, learner's permit stage starting no earlier than age 16; full driving privileges at 18, and requiring at least 50 hours of driver's education and adult-supervised driving.
Additionally, Safe Kids believes that police should not be restricted from stopping drivers for these offenses and that law enforcement should be able to do vehicle stops if they see several teens in a car. Many states prevent them from doing so, unless the driver is speeding or engaged in some other serious violation like running a red light. Public policies will help. But the buck stops at home. Ask your kids to play it safe.
Kate has written for magazines and newspapers for over 20 years. She has written for More, Edmunds.com, ForbesAutos.com, Houston Chronicle, Motion, Chief Executive, The New York Daily News, The New York Sun, and Autobytel.com. Her column, GirlDriver, USA is syndicated in seven newspapers in Upstate New York. Ms. McLeod is the author of Beetlemania, The Car That Captured the Hearts of Millions. She holds an MFA from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and is also a playwright. She is former First Vice President of the International Motor Press Association and a member of both The Authors and Dramatists Guilds.