Car crashes remain the No. 1 cause of death and injury for young people. For most of the past decade, teen crash deaths in the U.S. were on a decline before the trend reversed in 2013. Over those 10 years, we surveyed 109,266 teens at 281 schools in 11 states, to draw a distinction between what young drivers think about safe-driving behaviors vs. what they actually do. What we found was both enlightening and disturbing.
Our research shows that teen drivers acknowledge the perils of texting or talking on the phone while driving, even as they cling to their devices behind the wheel. More than one-third of them say they talk or text “some” or “a lot” while driving. Texting doubles a driver’s reaction time. So, why do they acknowledge the danger but at the same time seem to ignore it?
Knowing something is dangerous is not enough. While novice drivers can recognize there is risk, they may nonetheless feel that they are more than capable of handling it or are immune to it. The part of their brain that rationalizes isn’t fully developed until age 25.
Conversely, young drivers believe that alcohol is their greatest road-safety threat, although only about 1 in 10 teens admit to drinking and driving, and more than 80 percent say that they never do. Moreover, alcohol is a factor in only about 12 percent of fatal crashes involving 16- to 17-year-old drivers.
So, why do young drivers’ perceptions of the alcohol risk seem to exceed the reality while the real dangers of texting are ignored? We can probably thank a strong prevention culture that has helped to establish alcohol- and drug-impaired driving as socially unacceptable.
We’ve known for years that the presence of teen passengers raises the crash likelihood for teen drivers. In a driving simulation study at Temple University, young adults were about 50 percent more likely to make riskier decisions in the presence of friends, and adolescents were more than twice as likely to do so. Fully half of the teens we surveyed say they drive with teen passengers “some” or “a lot.”
We’ve also known that nighttime conditions are particularly dangerous for novice drivers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data shows that one-third of teen crash deaths happen between 6 p.m. and midnight. Roughly the same percentage of the teens we surveyed say they routinely drive during those hours.
The roadway carnage for young people is unlikely to abate, absent the combination of a watershed societal movement and transformative policy change.
To some extent, we can lean on new car technologies. Automated driving can deliver on the lofty promise of substantially safer travel, but it will likely be at least 20 years before results can be seen on a broad scale. We need to search for and aggressively implement alternatives in the next 10 years if we expect to see the projected death rate decrease substantially.
One thing we can do is improve our approach to public outreach. Speeding, nighttime driving, and passenger distraction all cause more crashes for young drivers than alcohol impairment, but drunk driving gets some of the largest public service campaign funding. Perhaps we need to change that.
We can also apply non-transportation public health methods. Efforts to treat obesity, for instance, rely on small steps like portion control, breaking behavior down to do-able steps. For teens, cell phone use is more than just a habit; it’s a functional addiction. We should work on breaking that cycle so the dependency isn’t so overpowering when they get in a car.
And we can do more to leverage peer influence. In Texas, the growth of Teens in the Driver Seat — a peer-to-peer safety program — coincided with a multi-year decline in teen-driver fatal crashes (yet Texas, too, has seen an increase in teen fatalities in recent years). States can invest more to help channel the force of positive peer pressure more effectively.
There’s a growing recognition in the prevention and research communities that we can’t address teen-driver crash deaths with only old ideas and worn-out thinking. We have to change our methods.
Americans have come to accept a certain number of roadway crashes and deaths as a daily norm, the price a modern society pays for the convenience of mobility. We can stop paying that price, but only if and when we choose to.
Minjares-Kyle is an associate transportation researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
This article was originally published in the Houston Chronicle, November 6, 2018.