Teen Driving Trends
Because of a traumatic incident as a young passenger in a car driven by another teen, 20-year-old Lizzie Nimmich of Ellicott City, Md., is a savvier driver than most people twice her age. When she was 14, Nimmich was being driven home from an after-school activity by her 17-year-old sister when they were hit head-on by a pickup truck. Nimmich spent nearly three months in the trauma unit and missed a year of school. "My sister was not speeding, but she was a new driver and she was nervous," says Nimmich. "This was a particularly difficult intersection to see oncoming traffic, and she didn't see the truck. Shortly after our accident, a teen was killed there, and the intersection was reconfigured to make it safer."
That incident changed Nimmich's life in a couple of ways. Her experience in the shock trauma unit made such a powerful impression on her that she is currently studying for her nursing degree at Towson University with an eye toward becoming a trauma nurse. She also became involved as a teen in promoting driving safety for teenagers. She was speaking on the topic of teen driver safety at a World Health Day event when she met Kristin Backstrom, founder of S2W, which stands for Safe, Smart Women. S2W is dedicated to educating female drivers on everything from safe driving practices to essential car care skills, such as how to change a tire and check the oil, to buying a car. Nimmich is now a student advisor for S2W.
Fortunately, Nimmich and Backstrom are not alone in their pursuit of driving information. The general public, including lawmakers, is becoming more and more aware of the seriousness of and need for better driver education.
There's no doubt that the statistics on teen drivers are appalling – and terrifying. Here are some of the most current statistics compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute (IIHS/HLDI).
- 5,691 teenagers ages 13 to 19 died in motor vehicle crashes in 2003. Approximately 2 out of 3 were males.
- Teenagers accounted for 10 percent of the U.S. population in 2003, but 13 percent of car crash deaths.
- In 2001, motor vehicle crashes were the No. 1 cause of death among 13- to 19-year-olds.
- Fifty-nine percent of teenage passenger deaths in 2003 occurred in vehicles driven by another teenager.
- Among fatally injured drivers ages 16 to 19, belt use in 2003 was as high as or higher than all other drivers.
- Per mile driven, fatal crash rates in 2001-02 were highest among male drivers 16 and 17 years old and 16-year-old females.
- Fifty-four percent of teenage motor vehicle crash deaths in 2003 occurred on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
- Forty-two percent of teenage motor vehicle crash deaths in 2003 occurred between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Statistics such as these have led to a variety of legislative efforts to reduce motor vehicle-related deaths and injuries to teens, including raising the minimum driving age, putting stricter controls on who can be in the car with the teen and early curfews for teen drivers. But there is a lot of opposition to making obtaining a driver's license more difficult for teens – often from parents who are tired of driving their teens around to after-school activities. And there are some compelling arguments against raising the driving age to 18, as some states are rumored to be considering. Since children legally become adults at age 18, there would be absolutely no restrictions on their driving freedom from the first moment they got their license. This would give parents no legal leverage to control their children's driving hours or behavior.
Lindsay Reigel, 17, is president of SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) at her high school in Ashburn, Va. She thinks raising the driving age will create more problems than it solves. "I'm graduating at age 17, and I will have at least a year of driving under my parents' rules and supervision before I go to college," she says. "If they had upped the driving age to 18, I wouldn't have been eligible to get my license until I was away from home. How would I have learned how to drive responsibly without my parents around?"
Teach a Woman to Drive
An anonymous teenager sparked the idea for S2W. Backstrom was on her way to dinner with friends two years ago when she saw a young woman driving along, breezily talking on the phone, with decals and interior décor that indisputably identified her as a young, single female. Backstrom couldn't help but wonder if the girl understood how vulnerable she was at that moment. "I thought to myself: Here she has the keys to her independence, but does she know that in the last 10 years crash rates for young women are up 42 percent," says Backstrom. "Does she understand how unsafe her lack of attention to her driving is? Does she realize how vulnerable she is if something happens and she has to pull over?"
Backstrom did some research and discovered some disturbing trends. One she thinks many young people aren't aware of is that, although young women are involved in crashes less frequently than young males, they are 31 percent more likely to be killed. They also sustain more, and more serious, injuries. "There's sort of a societal acceptance that young women are going to be safe," says Backstrom. "What we are starting to look at is how young women are evaluating risky behavior such as eating and talking to friends in the car or on their cell phones. Their distractions tend to be different. We need to make sure we get messages to them that help them realize their vulnerability."
This includes a facet of vulnerability that young men often don't even have to think about: assault. S2W teaches safety in situations such as when a car has a mechanical failure, including how to safely pull over and change a tire, and how to safely summon or wait for help.
And while every tip on S2W's Web site can apply to women or men, Backstrom is targeting women for the same reason that the old proverb notes: If you teach a man to read you've educated an individual; if you teach a woman to read you've educated a family. "Women are messengers of change," says Backstrom. "We're more likely to see safety improvement numbers across the population simply by targeting women."
Practice Makes Perfect
Looking again at the statistics from IIHS/HLDI, one stands out: Teens wear their seatbelts. Unfortunately, they tend to have more crashes involving higher speeds, which result in more injuries and deaths. They also tend to be more distracted by music, friends and cell phones and have less experience behind the wheel. As a result, teens aren't as good at making quick decisions or evaluating risky situations, such as the one Nimmich's sister found herself in. While every state does have various requirements for hours a teen must spend as a supervised driver, few states have the ability to make sure teens actually fulfill that requirement.
One way to verify that the teen does have X amount of time behind the wheel is to require professional driver's education courses, and some states do have that requirement. The problem is not only that the courses can be costly, but there's no guarantee that the instructor is competent. Backstrom tells a hair-raising story of a young woman who signed up for driver's education and her first time in the car, the instructor – rather than starting with the basics – had her drive on one of the busiest, most dangerous expressways in her city.
While there's probably no perfect legislation, experts agree that the best approach is for the parent to spend as much time as possible in the car with their young driver-to-be before he or she gets a license. Educate yourself and your child about teen driving statistics and some of the ways to minimize the chances of an accident. Remind them frequently, so that it's drilled into their heads, just as wearing a seatbelt has become an ingrained behavior.
After that, put restrictions on driving, such as times when the teen can drive, locations and distances, until they have a significant number of solo driving hours under their belt. Parents can find tips on how to maximize their teaching time with their child by visiting S2W's Web site or Edmunds.com, which has an excellent series on teen driver safety that should be required reading for drivers and drivers-to-be of any age.
Big Brother Is Watching You Drive
It's not a matter of trust; it's a matter of life and death. Even the best teen in the world may become careless when they hit that big open road as a solo driver for the first time. That's why Nigel Smith of Island GPS invented the DriveTronics Digital Driver Safety System. Working as a combination black box and early warning system, it tracks a variety of unsafe driving practices, and then warns the driver when he forgets to wear a seatbelt, use his turn signal, look behind him when backing up or goes into a neighborhood that's out of his permitted driving range. It even tracks instances of hard braking or quick acceleration, both tell-tale signs of unsafe driving habits.
The parent can then get a complete report on what behaviors the DriveTronics had to correct. While some critics may say it indicates a lack of trust, it also extends the parent's presence, albeit in a virtual way, which may be just enough for some drivers to continue on their best behavior until that behavior becomes a well-ingrained habit.