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Teen Driving

What's the Problem?

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers: more than 5,700 teens died of injuries caused by motor vehicle crashes in 1998. That's 109 kids every week. Teen drivers were involved in roughly 560,000 crashes resulting in death or injury that same year.

Who's at Risk?

Male teenage drivers had a death rate more than twice that for female teenage drivers in 1998.

Alcohol use continues to be a risk factor. In 1998, 14% of drivers aged 16-20 years involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes were legally intoxicated (that is, they had blood alcohol concentrations of at least 0.10).

Nearly 1 in 5 high school students report they rarely or never use safety belts when riding with someone else. Black high school students (31%) are more likely than white students (17%) to rarely or never wear safety belts.

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Can It Be Prevented?

Yes. Promoting the use of seat belts and enforcing zero blood-alcohol tolerance laws for drivers under age 21 are recommended.

However, prevention is hampered by peer pressure among teenagers to drink or use drugs. Teens are also more likely than older drivers to take risks such as speeding, running red lights, making illegal turns, and riding with an intoxicated driver.

There is pressure from peers to learn to drive and to own a car, thus making dating and getting a job easier. Parents also may pressure teenagers to learn to drive so that they can drive themselves to sports practice, school, and social events. In addition, many teens feel some social stigma about not being able to drive, being driven by parents, or not owning their own vehicle.

Driving is a complex skill, one that must be practiced to be learned well. Teenagers' lack of driving experience, together with risk-taking behavior, puts them at heightened risk for crashes. The need for skill-building and driving supervision for new drivers is the basis for graduated licensing systems, which currently are used in 24 states. Graduated licensing puts restrictions on new drivers; these are systematically lifted as the driver gains experience.

Tips for Scripts

  • INFORM viewers that the youngest drivers have the highest rates of motor vehicle-related deaths and injuries; lack of driving experience can be a contributing factor to their crashes.
  • EDUCATE viewers that driving is a skill and, like all skills, one a person must learn and practice.
  • EXPLAIN to viewers about graduated licensing: restrictions on new drivers are systematically lifted as the driver gains experience. Parents can use their own "graduated licensing" with appropriate restrictions and privileges.
  • INFORM viewers that safety belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front seat passenger car occupants by 45%, yet many teenagers, particularly males, don't use safety belts regularly.
  • REMIND viewers that it's important to use a safety belt for all trips.
  • INFORM viewers that the highest rate of motor vehicle-related deaths occurs from midnight to 6 a.m., and that death rates increase as speed increases.
  • REMIND viewers that alcohol and drug use increases the risk of a driver's causing a motor vehicle crash and the risk of pedestrian-related injury.

Case Examples

  1. Franklin, age 17, has just been awarded a full athletic scholarship to the state university. He and his friends celebrate by driving out to the river on Friday night. Franklin rides with Donnie, his best friend. An older friend buys several cases of beer and a large bottle of Jack Daniels, which gets passed around. They sit by the river, talking about their future lives: college, girl friends, making good money. Around 2 am, the beer gone, they pile into cars to go home. Franklin knows Donnie has had a lot to drink, but Donnie seems fine, wide awake and alert, so Franklin says nothing as his friend gets behind the wheel. Near home, Donnie races through a traffic light that has just turned red, and their car is struck on the passenger's side by a pickup truck. Donnie is not wearing a safety belt and is flung from the car and killed. Franklin is wearing a safety belt. He is badly hurt but survives the crash. He goes through months of painful rehabilitation, and suffers guilt for not stopping his friend from getting behind the wheel.
  2. Joe O'Malley is teaching his teenage daughter to drive. Christie has trouble merging into traffic on a highway, and must brake suddenly to avoid hitting a truck. She has tears in her eyes. Joe has her take the next exit and pull into a parking lot. Crying now, Christie says she'll never learn to drive. Joe tells her she is trying to learn a new skill, that she's doing great, and not to give up.
  • Page last reviewed: February 23, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 23, 2011
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