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Back to Archives | Back to April 2007 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Highway Safety Initiatives: New Research Brings Teen Driver Risk Factors into Focus

By Joel Bolton, Project Manager, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovation, Natchitoches, Louisiana

uring the past decade, the fate of many young drivers has gained attention from researchers, state legislatures, and traffic safety advocates. The reason for this focus can be found in data that demonstrate the high risk of new drivers’ being involved in a serious crash.

Law enforcement leaders have focused their education and enforcement activities for teen drivers on the important issues of safety belt use, impaired driving, and general risk-taking behaviors. Recent research has verified that these are, indeed, critical issues for the safety of these young drivers. Studies have found that other influences deserve attention as well, including drowsy driving, distracted driving, and the perception of driving hazards.

Crash Data for Young Drivers Draw Attention

The numbers are frightening for any parent. Research by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) found an annual rate of about 5,500 fatalities in traffic crashes for 16- to 20-year-olds, making crashes the leading cause of death for this age group. Another 27,000 teens are hospitalized as a result of crash injuries each year.

Young drivers, representing 6 percent of the driving population, are involved in 14 percent of fatal crashes. Per mile driven, drivers in the 16 to 19 age group have a crash rate that is four times that of those aged 30–69, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). One out of every four fatal crashes involves a driver in the 16 to 24 age group.

Inexperience behind the wheel and driving in darkened conditions are a dangerous combination for young drivers as well. Increased risk of being involved in a serious crash at night could reflect a number of factors: more recreational miles being driven, more teenage passengers, speed, and alcohol.

Graduated Licensing Can Help Inexperienced Drivers

The first six months after gaining a license is the most dangerous time for any driver. Sixteen-year-old drivers crash at a rate nine times higher than the general driving population.

Graduated driver’s license (GDL) laws in most states recognize this fact and include provisions that require supervision and safe performance behind the wheel before receiving an unrestricted license to drive. Between the learner permit stage and full licensure, restrictions typically recognize the danger presented by additional passengers and driving during nighttime hours.

The GDL process allows teens to learn to recognize risks and develop safe driving skills in a more or less controlled environment. Many parents wisely establish rules stricter than their state law during this important learning time, providing the benefit of their experience through close supervision of driving activities.

Distractions Pose a Threat to Young Drivers

Most police managers can attest from their own experience investigating crashes that distractions in the vehicle are a danger to young drivers. Police cannot always determine what exactly was happening in the vehicle at the time of a crash, but a recent survey of students has been able to shed some light on teen driver behavior. This survey was accomplished as part of a significant look at youth driving fatalities by an alliance consisting of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), the University of Pennsylvania, and State Farm Insurance Companies. The survey found that fatigue, use of cell phones and other devices, and distractions caused by passengers are among the most common factors contributing to unsafe driving.

Fatigue: Seventy-five percent of the teens surveyed reported seeing peers drive when fatigued. Other research has found the amount of sleep teens get decreases significantly between the ages of 13 and 19. Important driving skills are impacted when fatigued, including the ability to maintain attention and process information.

Use of cell phones: Cell phone use has been widely mentioned as a distracting factor for drivers of all ages. For the youngest drivers, text messaging is another potential distraction.

Passengers: The AAP research found that for 16- and 17-year-old drivers the number of teenage passengers being transported was related to the crash risk. A single teenage passenger increased a young driver’s crash risk 40 percent, and three teenage passengers increased the crash risk 160 percent.

Police, Parents, and Schools Can Modify Teen Driving Behavior

Police should continue to make seat belt use a point of emphasis in education aimed at teenage drivers. It is clear that properly used restraint systems save lives.

As a group, young drivers wear safety belts at a lower rate than the general population. Factor in their higher rate of crash involvement, and you have a clear case for encouraging belt use. The reasons teens give for not buckling up are similar to those given by adults. School-based programs that make safety belt use the norm have been successful in many jurisdictions.

Another topic that we’ve historically covered in programs targeting young drivers is the use of alcohol. Obviously, this should continue to be a cornerstone of both education and enforcement programs. Inexperience with the effects of alcohol on driving skills and inexperience behind the wheel are a deadly combination.

The role of parents cannot be overemphasized. They should ensure that their teenagers are operating vehicles that are roadworthy, and they should establish written agreements with their teenagers requiring use of safety belts and observance of speed limit laws and prohibiting driving after drinking. These agreements should also cover the number of passengers allowed in the car with the young driver and restrict the nighttime driving done by teens.

Above all, parents should recognize their position as role models to their teenagers and should demonstrate safe driving at all times. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 4, April 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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