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September 15, 2022Episode 41. Under the Influence of Youth: Most teens are eligible to drive at age 16, but are they ready?
FEATURING: Lisa Minjares
Young drivers face greater risks on the road than any other group. Some of the reasons for that are unlikely to change, but one thing that’s clearly open to revision is the manner in which we approach the problem.
About Our Guest
Associate Research Scientist
Lisa Minjares-Kyle, M.S., MCHES, manages TTI's Youth Transportation Safety Program. Her areas of interest and experience include the application of health prevention frameworks, Safe System approach, Traffic Safety Culture, and road safety management. In May 2022, she completed a second master's degree in transportation safety administration at Clemson University.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Welcome. This is Thinking Transportation. Conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another, and why that’s never as simple as we might expect it to be. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Young drivers, those aged 15 to 20, are the most dangerous drivers on the road. Statistically much more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers in older age groups. A lack of experience is one reason. You’re simply not likely to be good at something until you’ve practiced it for a while. Brain development is a big factor too. The prefrontal cortex responsible for decisions — sometimes risky decisions — is the last section of the brain to fully develop. And that development typically doesn’t happen until several years after a person is legally able to drive. The problem of young driver crashes is a complex one. Lisa Minjares is here to help us understand it better. As the manager of the Youth Transportation Safety Program at TTI, she’s an expert on this topic. Lisa, welcome to Thinking Transportation. Thank you for joining us.
Lisa Minjares (guest) (01:31):
Thank you for having me.
Bernie Fette (01:33):
Wow. This is a topic we could talk all day about, I know. But can we begin with you telling us just a little about the numbers in recent years, the statistics on both overall crashes and more specifically what we’re talking about today, crashes involving younger drivers? What are those trends looking like?
Lisa Minjares (01:53):
Well, Bernie, I wish I could say that we are at a point where we have continued to drive down these crashes and continue to, you know, fight the good fight and win. But once COVID hit, unfortunately we started to see a upward trend related to fatal crashes involving young drivers. And what that has shown us unfortunately, is some of the highest rates we’ve seen in over a decade. So, you know, right now we’re looking at about 5,000 lives lost just in 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Bernie Fette (02:27):
And when you say 5,000, can you give us the ages there, frame of the age group for us?
Lisa Minjares (02:31):
Sure. This, this would be for 15- to 20-year-olds across the nation.
Bernie Fette (02:37):
Okay. So they were trending down for a bit, at least for one period several years ago, but they’re on the way back up.
Lisa Minjares (02:47):
Yes. A significant increase between 2019 and 2020. Prior to that, overall the rate, um, and the involvement of young drivers in fatal crashes was steadily declining.
Bernie Fette (03:00):
But at the same time, crashes used to be the number-one cause of death for people in that age group. But they’re not anymore?
Lisa Minjares (03:09):
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, firearms have taken the place as the leading cause, followed by motor vehicle crashes. So they’re still one of the leading causes, just not the leading cause in the most recent data.
Bernie Fette (03:25):
Okay. And one of the things that has not changed is that we know that the younger drivers are the group most likely to be involved in crashes.
Lisa Minjares (03:33):
Bernie Fette (03:34):
Can you tell us why?
Lisa Minjares (03:36):
Sure. So the research shows that during this phase of their life, they’re still developing mentally as well as physically. And so part of that development process is engaging in riskier behaviors that older adults would be less likely to engage in. So that’s part of it, high risk taking, also learning the process of driving. So they’re inexperienced. We know that inexperience is one of the leading causes of being at a high risk for crash.
Bernie Fette (04:05):
And that judgment that you were talking about, that’s all about brain development.
Lisa Minjares (04:09):
Correct. So we fortunately know that brain development, full brain development doesn’t occur until at least at minimum, the age of 25. And so the frontal lobe where all the decision making is made is one of the last things to develop in the brain.
Bernie Fette (04:26):
But you mentioned experience, which we certainly need to talk about. A lot of this is about experience and younger people have to start building that experience at some point, but it seems that those aspiring younger drivers are waiting longer to get their license than many of us did in the past. I know that people that I grew up with, we all were lining up on our birthdays at the Department of Public Safety to get our license. But that’s not the case in more recent years, right? Can you tell us a little about that?
Lisa Minjares (04:58):
So there has been a decline in overall licensing rates across the nation for youth. I think from what we understand of the issue, there are a multitude of reasons. So this could be financial reasons. This could be the fact that mobility options have grown in recent years. So their way for them to get around has expanded. And also ultimately talking with teens, some of them have just shared, it’s just not a priority for them to get their license at a young age.
Bernie Fette (05:31):
So they’re not only waiting longer, but fewer people in that age group, the, the rate of people in that age group, fewer of them are actually getting their license?
Lisa Minjares (05:39):
Bernie Fette (05:39):
There are those who say that crashes are an inevitable fact of our existence, regardless of the age group. That vehicle crashes are just a price that we pay for the privilege of having mobility. But there’s a different school of thought that’s emerging, right? The Safe System Approach?
Lisa Minjares (06:03):
Bernie Fette (06:03):
Can you tell us a little about that?
Lisa Minjares (06:05):
The Safe System Approach has similar tenets to what has been known as Vision Zero. And the concept is that no life is worth the price of mobility. And so every road user should not have to face the ultimate potential consequence of either being severely injured or killed just by using our road system. The Safe System Approach encompasses being more proactive and preventive across multiple modes of the system. So instead of making repairs to a road, you’re making repairs to a road, you’re educating the user, you’re focusing on speed, you’re focusing on the cars, et cetera.
Bernie Fette (06:51):
Related to that. You’ve got, I think you could say two different paths that you can take to crash prevention, at least specifically for this group that actually applies to all groups, but more specifically to this group. There is the carrot-and-stick question, the stick being law enforcement, punishment, and the carrot being incentives. Do you have any thoughts on the balance between those two and, and whether that balance is, is changing at all?
Lisa Minjares (07:27):
Honestly, I think the carrot-and-stick analogy is an oversimplification of a really complex issue. When you look at the nature of car crashes, ultimately what’s occurring is about 10% of the actual issue or problem. It’s like an iceberg. You know, we see the top 10% of the actual crash itself, but we don’t see the underlying issues that cause the crash. So whether that’s driver behavior, whether that’s the roadway that they’re on, whether that’s the beliefs that they share, the mental models and patterns that they have developed that have led them to those decisions. All of that are things that we have traditionally left unaddressed because they’re deeper, they’re harder to reach. They’re harder to see. So when you look at the motivations for being safe, reward is one of them, but it’s not the only one. I think that’s where, from my perspective, utilizing the carrot-and-stick analogy is just really oversimplifying it. There are a lot of reasons why a teen driver or any driver makes a decision to drive safe. That’s family, that’s duty to their community, duty to doing the right thing, whether they were raised that way. You know, there’s just a lot of variables that build into that. Rewards is one of them. And punishment is also one of them.
Bernie Fette (08:53):
There were a couple of things, very specific that I think you wanted to talk about today. One being recognizing the role that equity can play in traffic safety for young drivers and how we can be more intentional about our efforts to recognize the impact of socioeconomic variables.
Lisa Minjares (09:14):
Yes. Traditionally I think where the transportation industry as a whole has failed is, is really recognizing that individuals are impacted by multiple levels within their socioecological lives. So not only their family units, but their school units, their community units, the states that they live in and ultimately the countries. So U.S. compared to, um, other countries have different beliefs, cultures, et cetera. When you start to boil down into the data and you look at crashes and access to even just getting a license, what we’re seeing specific to licensing even is that individuals from low economic social economic statuses are not being able to afford this driver education. So already they’re being denied access to life-saving training that would help them down the road. Another thing to consider as well is access to newer vehicle technology. Unfortunately, that comes with a hefty price tag. And so families who are putting their teens on the road to help — whether that’s, you know, shoulder the financial burden of their lives, or just getting them to school — they’re not driving the newest and latest safest vehicles to get them to and from where they’re going. So of course, obviously we think, well, roads should be getting safer because cars are getting safer, but they’re not getting safer for everybody because not everybody can afford these costs.
Bernie Fette (10:51):
Just simply out of reach for a lot of the population, right?
Lisa Minjares (10:54):
Correct. And then outside of expanding our focus, youth involved in fatal crashes are not just drivers, right? They’re passengers in vehicles.
Bernie Fette (11:04):
Lisa Minjares (11:05):
They’re pedestrians on our roadways, they’re bicyclists on our roads. So recognizing that youth who live in areas that do not have, um, readily available sidewalks, well lit streets, dedicated bike lanes, all of these things are gonna impact their ability to navigate our roadway safely.
Bernie Fette (11:24):
What you’re describing sounds like a fairly significant shift in thinking.
Lisa Minjares (11:31):
Yes. So that’s essentially what Safe System is trying to embrace.
Bernie Fette (11:36):
Since that does represent a fairly big shift in philosophy, how do you get there?
Lisa Minjares (11:43):
Ooh, that is a great question. And I don’t necessarily know the answer to it, but I think part of the first steps is having these conversations, recognizing the, the reality of the situation and understanding that one size doesn’t fit all. Part of the paradigm shift is recognizing in our leadership that this move and this change needs to happen. So federally the national road safety strategy has embraced the Safe System Approach. We know that the NHTSA has also embraced this approach and ultimately with the leadership stepping forward and saying, this is a priority for us. We, as researchers in this space, can continue to move the needle forward by exploring what this means for our work individually, whether that’s working with youth, whether that’s working with older drivers, whatever the case may be and understanding how this approach impacts all of our work moving forward.
Bernie Fette (12:48):
And one of the things that you mentioned a moment ago was having these conversations. Mm-hmm <affirmative>, which I guess would include conversations with the target group that we’re talking about here. How can researchers and educators engage more meaningfully with that population?
Lisa Minjares (13:10):
There are a number of ways that we can meaningfully engage them. One of which is meeting them where they are. The traditional model of holding an open house or having a virtual open house where we’re expecting them to show up is maybe not the best method for this younger group, right?
Bernie Fette (13:31):
Not realistic. Yeah.
Lisa Minjares (13:33):
Yes. So it’s being open to and flexible to where and when you connect with them. So, and meeting with them on their level. I think another thing that we need to work more proactively to engage is understanding what their priorities are. As we know, we’ve talked about already, the licensing rates have gone down, but they’re still engaging in our roadway system. So how is it that they’re using it? And what is it that they’re expecting? What is it that they’re looking for in, um, our roadway systems and how is it that we can work collaboratively together to ensure that when they do engage, they’re doing so safely because the traditional teen drivers is really that’s not the case as much as it was in the past.
Bernie Fette (14:16):
Okay. I’m wondering if we can expect the engagement that you’re talking about to be what brings about the next meaningful drop in the numbers. Again, they were dropping for a while now they’re spiking back up again. What do you believe the next big strategy needs to be?
Lisa Minjares (14:35):
Well, I think what COVID and these last two and a half years have really taught us is that we, as a system transportation system in general, do not exist in isolation to the greater whole. We are one part of a much larger and complex system. And so for years, we continued to address what a driver was doing. As soon as they got behind the wheel, we are continuing to address what roads look like, how to build roads, et cetera. But what we know is drivers are making a lot of decisions before they even get close to their vehicle. There’s a lot of issues that are impacting them behind the wheel, that if we don’t address those, we’re not gonna really affect meaningful change. And so ultimately mental health is a big factor. Substance abuse is a big factor. So working collaboratively with our health prevention specialists, our substance abuse counselors, et cetera, to really make more meaningful impacts to the system as a whole is the only way that we’re gonna start to drive down these numbers.
Bernie Fette (15:47):
I’m wondering if the older, I guess, more traditional customary paths, driver training, driver education. Do those still have an important place in the mix? Are they still relevant?
Lisa Minjares (16:03):
Yes. The short answer to that is yes. They’re still relevant. The challenge that we need to understand and incorporate and embrace moving forward is that they’re not the only paths. And their paths need to intersect with others in order to effectively achieve this meaningful change, recognizing that there are other players outside of the immediate roadway system that can influence drivers, young people, you know, they can influence pedestrian behaviors, et cetera, and working to incorporate those into our strategies. That’s the common expectation, right?
Bernie Fette (16:39):
Yeah. It’s a complex problem. So we can’t expect a simplistic solution.
Lisa Minjares (16:43):
Exactly. And I think the other thing that we have to recognize is that our society as a whole has experienced significant shifts in our lives and traditional approaches to these problems that have new and complex issues contributing to them is really not going to solve the problem initially, because now these are solutions for problems that were occurring 10, 15 years ago, or even pre-COVID. And so now it’s important for us to look at all of these new variables and their impact and how we can address them as they arise.
Bernie Fette (17:22):
Yeah. I’d like to go back for just a minute to those numbers again. The number of teen driver crash fatalities. It’s trending back up again. Do you have any insights on how those numbers line up with the way that they learned to drive, whether it was the commercial driving schools that we know about, whether they were taught through school-based driver education, which I’m not even sure if that’s a thing anymore, because I know that there are fewer schools who are even offering driver education. And then of course, there’s parent-taught driver education. Do we know anything about that question as it relates to the growth in the numbers?
Lisa Minjares (18:04):
I’m not aware of any studies specifically linking the national numbers to how they’ve gotten licensed.
Bernie Fette (18:12):
Lisa Minjares (18:12):
I will say that there has been some recent studies that did look at how a driver was trained and their crash rates following that training. So comparing, uh, school driver’s education, commercial driver education and parent-taught. And overall from what I’ve gathered from that study. And I don’t have the specific organization, but teens who went through formal driver education had better outcomes than those who went through parent-taught education.
Bernie Fette (18:43):
Lisa Minjares (18:43):
But the, the decision on whether to allow parent-taught is really up to each individual state. There are still states that offer in-school driver education, but the funding obviously is dependent on the state’s ability to provide that. And so, you know, it’s a lot easier to provide parent-taught because there’s really not any funding regarding that. And so, it’s really up to each individual state on what they feel is best. But the research is showing that teens are better off going through formal training. And you think any training, whether that’s just picking up something or being formally trained, obviously you’d likely do better receiving formal training than just kind of figuring it out as you go along.
Bernie Fette (19:27):
Right. And I guess it would be fair to also point out that there are exceptions in, you know, no matter which case we’re looking at, because not all young people learn in the same fashion or learn at the same pace. And so that’s going to, you know, impact how well they do, regardless of which form of training they may be engaged in. Yeah. Any thoughts you’d like to close with?
Lisa Minjares (19:50):
As new program manager for the Youth Transportation Safety Program, I would like us to continue to explore and understand how we can meaningfully engage youth, not just within their school environments, because we recognize now knowing that there are multiple areas where youth can be impacted, right? So engaging them in, in multiple settings, engaging the multiple adults and mentors in their lives. And ultimately our goal is to really achieve some semblance of traffic safety culture. And the idea behind that is in every facet of their life, safety is a part of it. And so it’s pushing them to have beliefs and values that lend themselves to safe driving and safe operation within the roads. And so that’s our goal.
Bernie Fette (20:40):
You work in a field that depends a lot on data, statistics. But those numbers represent human lives.
Lisa Minjares (20:47):
Bernie Fette (20:47):
Young lives that sometimes end far too soon. I would think that that could be discouraging. In the face of that kind of a sad reality, what is it that motivates you to show up to work every day?
Lisa Minjares (21:03):
Ooh, that’s a good question. I think for me personally, what motivates me is knowing that there’s hope, there’s hope because we know that a lot of this can be prevented. And if that’s prevented, that’s one less life lost. I look at my daughters who are nine and five and all I can think of is if I give up now and I don’t work to help make the road a safer place for them and the world, a safer place for them, then I might lose them. And that alone is enough to keep me up at night sometimes. And so I think the hope is that everything that we do, every decision that we make, every grant that we write, everything is dedicated to trying to say, we’re trying to save lives.
Bernie Fette (21:53):
Lisa Minjares — associate research scientist and manager of the Youth Transportation Safety Program at TTI. This has been really enlightening. Lisa, thank you again for sharing your time with us.
Lisa Minjares (22:07):
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Bernie Fette (22:11):
After a brief period when young driver crash deaths in America were on the decline, the number of those tragedies is once again increasing. As they have for decades, the youngest drivers on the road routinely face the greatest danger and the highest likelihood of a crash. Two reasons for that — inexperience and insufficient brain development — are unlikely to change. But one thing that could change is our attitude toward the problem. Starting with the notion that crashes are simply the price we pay for mobility. That’s an idea that no longer carries the weight that it once did, leaving room for an emerging philosophy that views roadway safety in a far different light. Thanks for listening. Next time we’ll consider the unique traffic safety challenges found in America’s biggest oil and gas production region. And we’ll hear from Michael Martin about how the lessons learned there promise to improve roadway safety in similar oil patches across the nation. Please join us for that conversation. And if you would, please, give us a review, subscribe and share this episode. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.