Study pinpoints biggest mistakes made by teen drivers

When they hand the car keys to their teenagers, parents are likely thinking about the teen crash statistics they've heard. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens between ages 15 and 19.
One way to help prevent teens from becoming statistics is to understand what causes them to crash. For a recent study by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance, researchers analyzed more than 800 crashes involving teen drivers and identified some common critical mistakes. They found that three common errors accounted for nearly half of all serious crashes.
  • Neglecting to scan the road: In 21 percent of the accidents studied, teen drivers neglected to do the scanning around the vehicle that's necessary to detect and respond quickly to dangerous situations. Scanning is a skill that experienced drivers acquire over time. It involves observing the road ahead (not just the space in front of the vehicle) as well as what's going on off to the sides.
  • Driving too fast for conditions: Another 21 percent of the crashes studied were caused by the driver traveling too fast for conditions. Posted speed limits are likely not safe if, for example, the roads are wet or icy, or if the road curves sharply. Teens, who often lack experience, may be basing their speeds on the posted limits and not on what's actually safe for conditions.
  • Distracted driving: About 20 percent of the accidents analyzed occurred because the driver was distracted by something (like music or a cellphone) or by someone (like passengers) while driving. The risk of a crash doubles when teens have one peer in the car, according to State Farm.
A 2007 report by the National Research Council, the Institute of Medicine and the Transportation Research Board had similar findings. It cited newly licensed drivers' inexperience as one of the most significant reasons for their high accident rates. The researchers found that other contributing factors in teen accidents included passengers being present in the car, driving at night and fatigue.
The report also included the key errors that teens make while driving, including failure to:
  • Maintain attention and avoid distractions.
  • Search ahead, to the side and to the rear when appropriate (when making turns, for example).
  • Adjust speed to conditions.
  • Maintain enough space between vehicles to stop the car safely.
  • Respond correctly to emergencies.
  • Maintain basic control of the car when maneuvering (changing lanes, for example).
  • Avoid driving while impaired by alcohol or fatigue.
So what can be done to help teens gain the experience they need to drive safely? Graduated driver's licensing (GDL) programs now in effect in many states require dozens of hours of supervised driving for novice drivers, as well as limited driving hours and cellphone restrictions. Such programs appear to be having some beneficial effects. The 2007 report cites one study that shows an average 11 percent reduction in fatal crashes among 16-year-olds who obtained their licenses through GDL programs.

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