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Fatal car crashes nearly three times more likely in newly licensed teens

Teens are at risk behind the wheel; here's how to help.
/ Source: TODAY

Newly licensed drivers between 16 and 17 years old are nearly three times as likely as adults to be involved in a fatal car accident, according to an analysis of traffic safety.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) found in 2017 that fatal teen crashes were on the rise.

They called the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day the "100 deadliest days," because the number of teen drivers on the road goes way up. During that time, the average number of teen driver accidents rises 15 percent compared to the rest of the year.

“What we know about teens is that they are not only a danger to themselves, but also to other people on the road,” said Jennifer Ryan, a spokesperson for the AAA. “The vast majority of people that are injured and killed when a teen driver is behind the wheel is someone other than the teen.”

Using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, researchers from AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety analyzed crash rates per mile driven for all drivers and found that for every mile on the road teens aged 16 to 17 were:

  • 3.9 times as likely as drivers 18 and older to be involved in a crash.
  • 2.6 times as likely as drivers 18 and older to be involved in a fatal crash.
  • 4.5 times as likely as drivers 30 to 59 to be involved in a crash.
  • 3.2 times as likely as drivers 30 to 59 to be involved in a fatal crash.

Although people often assume that older drivers are more likely to have issues on the road, the report found that even 80-year-old drivers were less likely than teens to be in a fatal crash.

Why are fatal accidents on the rise?

The AAA listed three factors contributing to the heightened risk:

  • distraction
  • not wearing seat belts
  • speeding

Passengers are the No. 1 cause of accidents, “followed by some form of interaction with your cellphone," said Ryan.

Teens driving with their friends in the car are most at risk, said Guohua Li, a professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and head of Columbia’s Injury and Prevention Center.

“Carrying passengers, particularly peers, and driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs,” are the biggest problems, Li told TODAY.

Other research has found that teens are often distracted by calls from their parents.

How to Make Teens Safe Drivers

  • 1. Give them lots of practice.

“If you compare someone who starts driving at age 25, or even 40, to someone the same age who has been driving for years, you will see a higher crash risk,” said Jonathan Ehsani, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy. “Overlaid on that, lack of experience is the fact that [in younger teens] judgment and decision making skills have not fully developed yet.”

The best safeguard, Ehsani said, is making sure that a teen gets a lot of practice in varied situations before getting a license — young drivers are more likely to get into crashes when they encounter a new situation.

“It’s like building a library of experience before they start driving on their own,” he said. “If their library is much richer and broader while they are learning to drive, the chances of avoiding an accident when on their own are much better.”

  • 2. Make a contract.

Another safety measure: parents should set out driving rules in a contract when a teen gets a license.

“If the teen fulfills certain requirements, like being home on time and driving in a certain way, then privileges can be extended,” said Ehsani. “If the parent learns the teen hasn’t been keeping the agreement, then privileges can be restricted.”

  • 3. Minimize unsupervised driving

The presence of experienced drivers helps teens practice safely.

  • 4. Offer rides

During especially dangerous times, at night or on weekends offer to drive the teen or arrange for a paid ride.

  • 5. Forbid teens from driving with peers in the car or riding with a teenage driver.

Teens driving with their friends in the car are most at risk, Li said.

  • 6. Let your teen drive the family’s newest and safest car.

Often teens are given the old car while parents upgrade. Be sure that the safest vehicle is in the hands of the driver most at risk.

Not every state allows younger teens to drive alone or with only friends: 15 states, plus the District of Columbia, make drivers wait until age 18 for a full license.

Just four states gives licences at age 16; other states require drivers to wait until 16.5, 17 or 17.5.


New technology designed to reduce distracted driving in teens

This article was originally published in 2017 and has been updated.