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April 13, 2021Episode 6. May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor. Celebrating 20 years of improved young driver safety.
FEATURING: Russell Henk
Car crashes have long been the leading cause of serious injury for people under age 25 in America, and in most years the top cause of death for teenagers. Russell Henk, an expert in young driver safety, outlines how a reward-based incentive program can provide a strong complement to traditional law enforcement efforts in helping novice drivers embrace positive driving behaviors changes for the rest of their lives.
About Our Guest
Senior Research Engineer
Russell Henk has been with TTI for 35 years and a registered Professional Engineer in Texas for 29 years. He’s led more than 100 transportation operations and safety projects and is the founder and current director of the Teens in the Driver Seat® program, which has been designated as a national best practice for young driver safety in the United States for over a decade. Russell also serves as program manager for TTI’s Youth Transportation Safety Program.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:16):
Hello again. This is Thinking Transportation, a podcast about how we get ourselves and our stuff from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Bernie Fette (00:28):
Car crashes are, far and away, the leading cause of serious injury for people under age 25 in America. And for many years, also the leading cause of death for teenagers. Things are actually getting better because the number of deaths is declining. Still, only suicide claims more teen lives every year than car crashes. Laws have gotten stronger and vehicles have gotten safer. And hundreds of high schools across the nation have adopted a peer-driven program called Teens in the Driver Seat, aimed at reducing teen traffic injuries and fatalities. Russell Henk, a senior research engineer at TTI, started Teens in the Driver Seat almost 20 years ago. As a parent himself, he knew that teenagers are much more likely to listen to each other than they are to listen to parents or other adults. He’s with us today to talk about the progress toward making driving safer for novice drivers, and the work that still remains on that front. Welcome to Thinking Transportation, Russell.
Russell Henk (guest) (01:35):
Thanks for having me.
Bernie Fette (01:37):
So car crashes, number-one cause of serious injury for people under the age of 25 throughout this country and for most of the last few decades, the leading cause of death for teenagers. Why is that?
Russell Henk (01:51):
It really comes down to two things. One is brain development. It’s not that we have anything wrong with any of us individually. It’s just the way the Good Lord made us. Our brains are not fully developed until about the age of 25. The front part, the prefrontal cortex in particular, helps us with executive decision-making. And we are all, just as human beings, at a fundamental disadvantage until that happens. So, you know, in most states in America, young people start getting behind the wheel for the first time at age 15 or 16. They have another 10 years before they’re really fully equipped in terms of their brain making good decisions, particularly short decisions on the fly, until they’re age 25.
Russell Henk (02:35):
The other thing as it relates to driving is, there is just no substitute for hands-on, real-world driving experience. Nobody’s born a great driver. We all need that training. You know, we’ll probably talk about things like driver training and other things like that, but that’s the bottom line. Until we can get them, you know, the national standard suggested guideline is 50 hours of hands-on practice behind the wheel before they should be driving by themselves. And it’s just a rarity. There are very, very few young people, novice drivers, you know, especially in the teenage age bracket that are getting those precious hours behind the wheel.
Bernie Fette (03:17):
So whether it’s driving or learning to play the guitar or the piano, you just really need quite a few hours of on-the-job training, so to speak, to get it right.
Russell Henk (03:26):
Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. That’s a good comparison. There’s just absolutely no substitute for it. There’s some things we can do to help, but that’s the bottom line.
Bernie Fette (03:34):
Yeah. Are there any ways that driver training, driver education, has changed since the days that you and I got out there and got into the car with the Department of Public Safety trooper?
Russell Henk (03:47):
Well, you know, many moons ago when we were young, driver education was still offered in a lot of schools and, and sometimes it was even free. And that’s non-existent. So unless a parent, a family is going to pay for that driver training, whether it’s after school on campus from somebody who’s trained to do it or going to a local driving school, it’s a little more difficult. It becomes to be … becomes a cost issue for some folks. And there have been some developments. There’s definitely in the past five, ten years, much more online access to driver training. There’s driver simulator-type of training. But again, what the research bears out is there’s precious little evidence that that is actually influencing (decreasing, to be specific) the frequency of car crashes involving young drivers. Again, it’s back to that hands-on practicing. Given our COVID environment, piling three or four, you know, young people in the car to get that hands-on experience with a trained driver training expert–that’s really not happening right now, either.
Bernie Fette (04:55):
So whenever it comes to trying to keep them on the straight and narrow, whenever they do finally get behind the wheel, we have the benefit of traffic laws, traffic enforcement. But if we consider that to be the stick, how much of the remedy here really depends more on the carrot? And I think that you guys have actually been working in that area a bit, haven’t you?
Russell Henk (05:18):
We have. There’s an important role for enforcement and good policy. And we have a lot of good examples of that. The bottom line is there’s no silver bullet. We need lots of tools in the safety toolbox and what we’ve really tried to do, you know starting with Teens in the Driver Seat at the high-school level and branching out to junior high and college peer-to-peer initiatives, is really as opposed to kind of a “cuffs and clubs” approach to things. And there’s a time and a place for that. Ours is really what I would call more of an incentive-based “cameras and cash” [approach]. We really try to put young people in the forefront as an engaged part of the solution. And when they do great things in their community, we shine a light on it. And we have an awards program that they can win, you know, a thousand dollars cash for their school. If they’re doing great outreach in their communities, we’ve seen it to be quite effective. Again, more of a positive, carrot approach to things is as you coined it.
Bernie Fette (06:19):
Yeah, and of course, it’s hard to talk about anything these days without putting it in a context of the pandemic that we’re all still trying to get through. When we consider that as you know, the public health crisis that it’s been, it’s probably not a stretch to consider young people and car crashes as its own public health crisis that’s been going on for quite a while. Don’t we have some parallel between those two in terms of personal responsibility?
Russell Henk (06:47):
I absolutely agree with what you’re saying there. I see a clear parallel. And the way I look at it is just as you know, given COVID, just as we mask up for our own personal safety, but also the well-being of others that we’re going to interact with out there in the public, we should do that when we’re behind the wheel. You know, your smartphone would be a good example–of putting the phone down for your own sake and then the sake of everybody else you’re going to interact with out there when you’re on the roadway. And to me, you know, we’ve got kind of a catch phrase that I’ve been using as a part of our programming with young people–be safe, be smart, be socially responsible. It clearly applies to the COVID environment as well as being a good, responsible, safe driver out there in your community.
Bernie Fette (07:37):
So sticking with that parallel between the pandemic and car crashes, what it comes down to is one precaution may not be enough, but maybe a combination of more than one might do the trick?
Russell Henk (07:49):
Exactly. It’s a probability issue to me in some ways. In the pandemic context, in the safe driving context, you want to put the odds in your favor. You know, maybe the mask isn’t a hundred percent perfect solution, but it mitigates the risk. And that’s what, you know, again, buckling up and putting down your phone and not excessively speeding–it all mitigates your risk. It doesn’t guarantee the fact that you’re not going to be in a car crash or somebody else is maybe even going to hit you even when you’re doing the right thing, but it puts the odds in your favor.
Bernie Fette (08:21):
Right. Just because you’ve got your seatbelt on doesn’t necessarily mean that you are you’ve got any guarantees, but it sure offers some assurances.
Russell Henk (08:29):
Well, and it greatly enhances your chance of survival.
Bernie Fette (08:32):
Right. And especially when you combine it with following the speed limit and the possibility that in a crash, you might have the assistance of your airbag also.
Russell Henk (08:41):
Bernie Fette (08:41):
Russell, let’s talk just a minute about when we’re having this conversation. People are hearing this during Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Was that a lot of the motivation behind the app that you guys developed?
Russell Henk (08:55):
It was. We’ve been working on a smartphone app. We have recently launched the latest generation of that as an entire TTI in-house project. We’re excited about that, but yes, one of the primary goals of that smartphone app is to deter distracted driving. So yeah, April’s absolutely a timely part of the calendar, National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, to focus on that. We’ve seen a lot of success. We did a pretty rigorous analysis of the early pilot project, and we were able to decrease the frequency of distracted driving by 65 percent. So we saw some really good success and very similar to, you know, again, back to the way we really try to run this whole program and everything we do. It’s very incentive-based. Our slogan–kind of, call to action–for the smartphone app is “responsibility has its rewards.” So the way the app works is that the young drivers, their reward system is really structured for the drivers aged 25 and younger. And if you have a safe trip, you’re going to earn points. And as you accumulate safe trips, you’re going to earn gift cards, and you can cash those gift cards out for $10 gift cards for Amazon, Chick-fil-A, and Starbucks at this point in time. So we released the Apple iOS version back in early October–so, just a few months ago. We’re seeing a really nice steady increase in downloads and users each month. And we’ve already given out about $2,000 in gift cards. So it’s great. It’s exciting. And the early evidence of this last generation of the app is it’s, once again having the impact, the positive influence on driving that we had hoped. It is also targeted at extreme speeding. So not just distractions, but distractions again, back to your question, is a huge part of what we’re trying to prevent.
Bernie Fette (10:48):
That sounds really encouraging, like the whole idea of the carrot in this case seems to be bearing some fruit for you; seems to be working out pretty well.
Russell Henk (10:57):
Yeah. So a couple of unique things about our smartphone app is that it’s all or nothing. There’s no partial credit. And if there is a distraction at any point in that trip or excessive speeding at any point in that trip, you will have points deducted from your driving score. You get a driving score at the end of each. So if you get a hundred–score of a hundred–that means you were a safe driver; that was a safe trip and you’re going to earn points. Again, there’s maybe some instances of some apps out there that will give partial credit. So that the time you spent not messing with your phone, you’re still gonna earn points. I feel that sends the wrong message. That was not a safe trip. Another distinction is that we also give extra credit and they can earn points towards their all-star awards program for their school each year, which again is an integral part of what we do with our youth transportation safety program–again Teens in the Driver Seat is our largest component of that at the high school level–so they can earn points for themselves personally, but they’re also helping their team and their school earn points and cash awards as well. Sometimes an individual is more motivated to do something for the sake of others than even themselves. So in this case, you have that dual motivation to use the app.
Bernie Fette (12:19):
We talked a little bit earlier about the statistics and how you can look at the statistics from one perspective or another over the last few decades. One thing we’ve noticed is that crash deaths have been dropping steadily for a period of years and sort of leveling off recently, which makes me wonder, have we reached a point of diminishing returns on our efforts?
Russell Henk (12:46):
Well, you know, thinking of (again) the tools in the toolbox and policy being one of those that I think has definitely helped over the last 20 years, at least in America, for sure, and that’s graduated driver licensing. You know, barring the prohibition of driving to the age of 25, again, going back to brain development, I think it’s going to be difficult to move the needle as much as we have the last 20 years. Again, there’s some good news there. You know, the downside is we’re still losing young people by the thousands. You have 2,500 to 3,000 a year; and injuries multiply that by a hundred. So I think, you know, I think our best bets in relative terms are probably expanded education and technology. I think technology is probably our single best hope. And that’s, again, what we’re trying to accomplish in a sense with our smartphone app. Autonomous vehicles–I think we’re still a ways out. That will help; I think we’re still probably 10-plus years away for a couple reasons. One is market penetration in general. I don’t think that a large portion of our population can afford it even as adults. And then you factor in a family, parents being able to afford a car with those bells and whistles for their youngest driver. It’s going to take us some time to get there.
Bernie Fette (14:04):
Yeah. That’s not all that practical for most families, I guess. You raised a really important point though, I think about the age. Even if we delay the time that a young novice driver begins to drive, we’ve still got the brain development issue, and there’s still the experience issue, right?
Russell Henk (14:21):
Sure. No, you’re absolutely right. And that’s been, I think an unintentional consequence, at least a little bit of a way with graduated driver licensing. What we’re seeing in the data is a shift where the fatality, serious injuries for novice drivers, used to be centered around the age of 16-17 years old. It’s now shifted a bit to 18-19 years old and some instances, not everyone of course, but they don’t want to mess with the graduated driver licensing constraints and restrictions. So they’re waiting until the age of 18 when, and most states that doesn’t apply anymore, but you’re absolutely right. They’re still a novice driver. They’ve shifted that timeframe a couple of years in ballpark terms. And we’re seeing an increase in again, fatalities and injuries for 18- and 19-year-olds. So it’s a little complicated. And again, I’m not suggesting that if we had, you know, an idealistic world and it’s probably in the range of fantasy where, you know, the law in the United States would be, no one starts to drive till the age of 25. I think the science suggests that that clearly should help us, but they’re still going to be brand-new drivers. And there’s that hands-on learning experience. They’re not going to be the best drivers on the road.
Bernie Fette (15:39):
So in terms of experience, it’s a classic example of us, you know, with a policy like that, kicking the can down the road.
Russell Henk (15:45):
Yes. I would agree with that. At least to an extent, yes.
Bernie Fette (15:50):
We have heard from some corners of this discussion over the years about how there’s a certain acceptance of risk that we pay as a society for the freedom of mobility. What are your thoughts on that?
Russell Henk (16:04):
I think there’s no question that it’s absolutely true. It’s the double-edged sword. It’s the Catch-22, call it what you will, but it absolutely is–if we want to continue to have the freedom of flexibility, you know, individually and collectively in our society, again, at least for now, and has been the case for decades. It’s a by-product of that system.
Bernie Fette (16:30):
What it comes down to is not eliminating risk entirely. We’re really minimizing risk to the best of our ability.
Russell Henk (16:37):
Yes. Our role, our mission is to mitigate that risk. And in many cases, prevent it. That’s the good news in the big picture. Car crashes are 99 percent of the time preventable.
Bernie Fette (16:48):
Right, right. You’ve been for close to 20 years now, you’re coming up on the 20-year anniversary of the Teens in the Driver Seat program that you created. So you’ve been studying the teenage brain from a distance; but as a dad, you’ve been studying the teenage brain up close and personal. How has one of those influenced your approach with the other?
Russell Henk (17:11):
I think a lot of us, as parents, as we raise our children and they get to their teenage years, which are challenging. In many cases, we’re viewed as some of the dumbest people on the planet. They are not going to necessarily listen to us as much as we would hope, we like. The reality is they do. They listen to … they’re listening a lot of times we don’t think they are. So, you know, my approach to this, knowing what I knew, I went out and I paid a professional driving instructor because my hope and my belief was there was a higher probability they would listen to that person. This was a trained professional. We were paying for that. And then I supplemented that with many, many hours of on-the-road, real-world driving experience.
Bernie Fette (17:57):
Right, and reinforcement.
Russell Henk (17:57):
And I worked and they, you know they … I wasn’t their favorite person at that stage of things, but I was not, knowing what I knew, I was not just going to cut them loose. Okay. Well, you went to driver’s ed; you’re fine. We practiced, practiced, practiced. You know, we did our best to get to that 50 hours of hands-on, on-the-road practice. I wasn’t gonna be able to have a clear conscience and sleep well at night, knowing that I didn’t do what I felt like I needed to do. And that’s,–it’s hard. People are so busy, but you know, if you’re a parent and you’ve got a teenager in your life, maybe you’re a grandparent, you got a teenager in your life. That is the best thing we can do is help them get that practice.
Bernie Fette (18:38):
Russell Henk (18:38):
And it is, I mean, you know, carving out 50 hours; it’s going to take you months, but it’s worth it. It could save their life. And it can spare you from one of the hardest things that we as parents … we’re just not programmed to experience the loss of our child. It is worth it.
Bernie Fette (18:57):
Right. So over those 20 years, this has been personal for you, hasn’t it?
Russell Henk (19:02):
It has. This really started in response to a horrible string of crashes that we were experiencing in the San Antonio, Texas, area. We lost 10 teenagers over a six-week period back in 2001. Both of my children were born, but they were very young. Christian was a toddler, and it was just being played out in the news every day–radio, television. And I was watching the response from the community, and it was more of the same. It was all, “we need stricter laws. They were just a bunch of dumb teenagers. They’re probably all drunk.”
Russell Henk (19:35):
Alcohol was not involved in any of the crashes. And it was making me sick to my stomach to see it play out in the media, having two young children of my own. And, I just felt really strongly motivated to try and do something different. You know, we’re a research organization. So I did some research and there was evidence that peer-to-peer had been very successful for things like teen pregnancy and smoking, but nobody had ever really leveraged it for the leading cause of injury and death for our young people in our country, and that’s car crashes. So, we did a pilot project. We set out, we learned a lot. We’ve been fortunate enough to build upon that and turn it into a national best-practice program. And it’s been great. There’s no question that we’ve saved families and friends from misery. I think we’ve probably saved hundreds of lives at this point. It’s been an honor and a privilege to work on it.
Bernie Fette (20:31):
Well, congratulations on the 20-year mark, Russell. Keep up the good work, man.
Russell Henk (20:34):
Bernie Fette (20:35):
Every car crash death is tragic and most are preventable–given the right approach. What resonates for one young driver might be in-one-ear-and-out-the-other for a different driver. That’s especially true if the brain between those ears is still a long way from mature development. In trying to minimize risk and keep things safe for the youngest people behind the wheel, it helps to know when and where the carrot holds more promise than the stick, and to remember that the messenger is often just as important as the message.
Bernie Fette (21:16):
Thank you for listening to Thinking Transportation. We hope that you’ll subscribe to our podcast and share it, too. In our next episode, we’ll visit with Brianne Glover, an expert on the economics of transportation infrastructure. She’ll help us understand why the way that we’ve always paid for roads and bridges worked pretty well for a number of years, but maybe not so much anymore.
Bernie Fette (21:42):
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. See you next time.