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 United States were on the decline before the trend reversed in 2013. Over those 10 years, researchers in the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s (TTI’s) Teens in the Driver Seat® (TDS) program — a peer-to-peer safety initiative — surveyed 109,266 teens at 281 schools in 11 states. What TDS found was enlightening and demonstrates a need for further research.
The results show a distinction between what young drivers think about safe-driving behaviors versus what they actually do. 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 while driving doubles a driver’s reaction time. So efforts to understand why they acknowledge the danger but also ignore it are vital.
“The part of the brain responsible for higher-level decision-making isn’t fully developed until age 25, so knowing something is dangerous isn’t enough,” says TTI Associate Transportation Researcher Lisa Minjares-Kyle of TTI’s Youth Transportation Safety Program. “While novice drivers can recognize risk, they may feel immune to it or that they’re more than capable of handling it.”
Although alcohol is a factor in only about 12 percent of fatal crashes involving 16- to 17-year-old drivers, young drivers identify driving intoxicated as their greatest road-safety threat. Only about 1 in 10 teens admit to drinking and driving, and more than 80 percent say they never combine those activities.
So, why do young drivers’ perceptions of the alcohol risk seem to exceed the reality while ignoring other real dangers, like texting while driving?
“A strong prevention culture that has helped to establish alcohol- and drug-impaired driving as socially unacceptable is part of the answer,” Minjares-Kyle says. “And yet research shows other behaviors present an even greater danger to teen drivers.”
It’s been acknowledged for years that teen passengers in a vehicle raise the crash likelihood for teen drivers. In a 2005 Temple University driving simulation study, 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 the teens surveyed by TTI say they drive with teen passengers “some” or “a lot.”
Nighttime conditions present another, particularly dangerous situation for novice drivers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data show that one-third of teen crash deaths happen between 6 p.m. and midnight. Roughly that same percentage of the teens surveyed by TTI acknowledge they routinely drive during those hours.
To some extent, new technologies can help mitigate these risks. 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. To significantly decrease teen driving deaths in the next 10 years, finding and aggressively implementing alternatives is necessary.
One area of improvement, Minjares-Kyle says, is expanding the topics addressed by public outreach campaigns beyond drinking and driving. 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. Providing additional support for programs and campaigns that address other dangerous behaviors is one path to effecting positive outcomes.
Another approach is to apply non-transportation public-health methods. Efforts to treat obesity, for instance, rely on small steps like portion control, breaking behavior intervention down to do-able steps. For teens, cell phone use is more than just a habit — it’s a functional addiction. Breaking that cycle so the dependency isn’t so overpowering when they get in a car should be a priority.
In Texas, the growth of TDS 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 as another strategy to reducing teen driving fatalities.
“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,” Minjares-Kyle says. “We can stop paying that price, but only if and when we choose to do so.”