Too young to die: Tackling the No. 1 teen killer

ST. GEORGE — On average, five teens a day were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2017, and traffic accidents remain the leading cause of death among teens ages 15-18 in the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says. This puts car crashes ahead of all other types of injury, disease or violence for teens.

In this 2017 file photo, a Chevrolet passenger car sustains heavy damage after being involved in a fatal collision on SR-18, Washington County, Utah, April 2, 2017 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

Now in its 12th year, National Teen Driver Safety Week, which takes place from Oct. 20-26, is a grassroots movement that has brought a consortium of parents, law enforcement, safety experts and policy makers together from across the country to tackle this No. 1 cause of death for teens.

According to teen driver safety statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1,830 young drivers ages 15- 20 years old died in motor vehicle crashes in 2017.

“If there was a disease that was wiping out our teenagers at the rate of thousands per year, there would be no end to what we would do as a society to stop that,” Dr. Jeffrey Runge, former head of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, said in a 2005 statement.

A recipe for disaster

Highway transportation experts say teen drivers have a higher rate of fatal crashes primarily due to their “immaturity, lack of skills, and lack of experience.”

Specifically, a majority of teen driver crashes are due to three critical errors: lack of scanning, speeding and distractions.

Composite image with Six Rules for the Road for National Safe Teen Driving week infographics | Images courtesy of The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, St. George News

According to research by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia., scanning errors are made when newly licensed teens fail to anticipate where and when to expect traffic or driving hazards to pop up, including cars in an adjacent lane that may pull out suddenly, pedestrians who are just out of the driver’s view or another vehicle that rolls through a stop sign or runs a red light,

While experienced drivers have learned to scan the environment and expect the unexpected, teens have not had enough time to master these driving skills.

This lack of scanning can segue into the speeding problem, since amateur drivers don’t do well moderating speed and positioning their vehicles to avoid hazards.

In fact, among serious crashes where teen driver error was determined to be the cause, 21 percent occurred from going too fast for road conditions.

While teens driving 40 mph in a 30 mph zone may think they’re only going 10 mph over the posted speed limit, crash analysis has shown that the small increase in speed translates to a 78 percent increase in collision energy.

This is supported by a recent demonstration put on by the Department of Public Safety in Washington City, where officers were buckled into a simulator  designed to mimic a 5-mph crash. Washington City Police Chief Jason Williams told St. George News the demonstration was intended to show that even a low-speed impact can be significant.

“It was surprising how much momentum there is, even at 5 mph,” Williams said.

When it comes to the third error, distractions are a key factor in more than half of all crashes involving drivers ages 16-19, according to an analysis of video footage of more than 1,600 crashes before they took place.

In 2017, nearly 40 percent of high school students reported texting or emailing while driving during the past month.

Santa Clara/Ivins Police Sgt. Reed Briggs said the most common behavior they observe with teen drivers is distractions caused by cell phone use.

“They need to put the cell phone down when they are behind the wheel,” he said.

Briggs added that officers often respond to crashes involving single-vehicles that go off the road or crash into parked cars “for no apparent reason.” They also see frequent rear-end collisions where the driver doesn’t notice that the light is red, “and then they plow into the back of a car waiting at the light.”

“These types of mistakes have to come from somewhere,” Briggs said, “and most of the time these kids are distracted because they are on their cell phones.”

Parents are a critical ingredient 

Parents have more influence over their teen than they give themselves credit for, Williams said, adding that first and foremost, parents lead by example. If the parent demonstrates safe driving habits, their children are more likely to do the same.

Conversely, if the parent uses their cell phone while driving, their teen will likely do the same.

Stock image | Photo by Rich Legg/iSTock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Being involved is key as a parent, Williams said.

“Any teen will learn more from their parents’ actions than they ever will from their words.”

Williams’s statements are backed by extensive research. One study found that teens who say their parents set rules and monitor their driving are twice as likely to wear a seat belt compared to  teens with less involved parents.

The study also revealed that parental involvement showed a reduction in the number of teens driving under the influence by more than 70%, and those with authoritative parents were less likely to use a cell phone while driving. Additionally, the number of teen drivers reportedly speeding was cut in half.

Research also shows that teens understand they are vulnerable and are well aware of many risks, so efforts to “scare them straight” are unproductive. Instead, focusing on positive actions that teens can take to be safe and to keep their friends safe are more powerful than using scare tactics.

The “5 to Drive” campaign was launched in 2013 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to coincide with the teen driver safety week and includes the following:

1. No cell phone use or texting while driving.
2. No extra passengers.
3. No speeding.
4. No alcohol.
5. No driving and riding without a seat belt.

National Teen Driver Safety Week was launched in 2007 after several tragic crashes involving Pennsylvania high school students.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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