Understanding teen driver car crashes and what parents can do.

December, 2002 – Whenever we get behind the wheel of a car we begin the process of risk analysis and risk assessment. We are looking about and answering these questions with every glance, “Is there anything in my way keeping me from implementing this action? Is it safe? How can I best go about implementing this action and what might the likely consequences be?” This is why we look behind before backing up, or look both ways before entering the roadway. We are determining issues of risk.

Only after we have determined issues of risk (unless asleep or distracted) do we take action. This is the course of normal human thought or cognitive processes when operating a motor vehicle and it all occurs within seconds or less.

Now let’s understand another element of normal human behavior. More often than not, while analyzing risk, we are also trying to determine how much can we get away with. If the speed limit is 50 we may be thinking about going 55, or 60, or more. This is where the risk assessment comes into play. We think about our choices and the likely consequences of each choice. We remember never having seen radar or a law enforcement officer or there may be few vehicles on the road at the particular time. The road surface may be dry, wet, icy snowy, smooth or bumpy. We quickly take note of a number of variables then choose our course of action. We say to ourselves, “I think I can get away with this much” or “I am willing to take this big a chance.”

When we come to a stop sign, we do the same. We may not treat a stop sign in the middle of two rural roads the way we do in the center of town. As such we may risk a rolling stop in one situation, but come to a full stop in another situation. We are forever making choices based upon our risk analysis and assessment.

All of the above is normal human behavior.

Now, let’s understand the difference between adult drivers and teen drivers. At age 46, I am 28 years older than my son. I have 30 years of independent driving experience. I have had a collision in my driving history. I have driven in all seasons and in all driving conditions and on all kinds of roadways. I have witnessed collisions and their aftermath. So far, this makes me about average and very similar to many parents of teen drivers.

When I drive, I base my risk analysis and assessment on 30 years of driving experience. I have a wealth of personal data by which to analyze and assess any given situation. I can draw upon numerous choices with a rich understanding of the possible consequences of each choice having experienced the outcome of most from which I am choosing.

This is totally unlike a new teen driver. New teen drivers do not have the wealth of experience on which to base their risk analysis and assessment. As such they are more limited in both their range of choices for any given situation and their understanding of the consequences for any given choice. Recently a carload of teenagers in Joplin MO., was careening down a highway exceeding the speed limit. The driver and passenger thought it would be a good idea to change seats. The vehicle crashed killing two occupants and seriously injuring the other four occupants. All six occupants were girls.

No one knows what prompted the driver and passenger to change seats. Perhaps the driver wanted to fix her make-up. Her risk analysis said it would be safer as a passenger and her assessment was that it was safe enough to change seats even while underway. Poor judgement.

In another situation, a vehicle is found overturned at the side of a road at the top of a curve. It is a single vehicle crash. The driver is dead and the 3 other occupants lay unconscious. The collision reconstruction team determines the vehicle’s speed exceeded the tolerance of the curve and hence there was likely a loss of traction causing the vehicle to slide off the road. The driver’s risk assessment told him he could manage the curve at an excessive speed. He was wrong. Dead wrong.

We speak of lack of judgment when it comes to teen drivers. Lack of judgment means that teens do not have the same depth of experience on which to base their assessment and as such they may make a less than adequate decision given the absence of experience from which to draw. When teens decide to take a risk, it is often greater than an adult would choose. Teens fear less because of less experience. Teens have not witnessed many collisions, if any. They have not seen the many consequences of crashes. They are less likely to believe these things can happen to them. Hence they are prone to taking greater risks based on less good judgment and are hurt more often.

Unfortunately, this lack of experience and lesser judgment is not recognized by the teen. They cannot see what they never had or are yet to develop. They cannot appreciate their lack of experience and as such will argue tooth and nail, that they are fully capable.

Imagine the three-year-old child. We tell the child not to touch the stove or they will get burned. Having never been burned, the three-year-old has no appreciation of the warning. At some point in time, all children recognize “hot” only after touching something hot – then the warning makes sense. Teens have a marvelous capacity for language. They have just spent the past several years in high school and elementary school before that. They are taught to argue their points and to assert themselves. The can certainly convince parents that they do know more than their actual experience has taught. Parents often buy into this even though many know that no amount of intellectual learning can replace real life experience.

Parents think that because they trust their teen or because their teen is generally good or because the teen is convincing, that their teen will exercise good judgment in the use of the car. However, parents are cautioned to remember that their teen’s good judgment just doesn’t have the wealth of experience to back it up.

Parents would never accept from a three-year-old that they know how to handle the stove, even if such a young child knows how to turn the knob. No matter how good or well-meaning the teen, they simply are not fully equipped for the responsibility and management of a motor vehicle under all circumstance. This is well known to insurance companies and underscores the fact that young
persons insurance rates do not decline substantially until about age 25. Their statistics drive home the point that young drivers are at greater risk of crashing. Insurance companies do not consider young persons experienced until about age 25 because their crash statistics show that this is when crashes start to significantly decline.

Just as parents may let the young child help in the kitchen, parents still remain vigilant around the stove. Similarly, parents may let the teen use the car, but the parent must still remain vigilant. Aside from the first year of life, the first year of driving remains the most risk filled point in a young person’s life. Teen driver car crashes are the leading cause of permanent injury and death in teens and the first year of driving is the most dangerous. Parents must talk with their teens and set limits and determine responsibilities, expectations and restrictions on the use of the car if they want to reduce the risk of their son or daughter’s involvement in a crash. Parents would do well to turn down the volume if their teen objects, just like they wouldn’t listen to the objections from a three-year-old on touching the stove.

Parents do know better and it’s not until the teen is over age 25 that they will truly understand or appreciate the actions taken by their parents. This is the normal course of human development.

Several factors contribute to teen car crashes, injuries and fatalities. They include driving after midnight, seatbelt use, number of passengers, intoxicants, fatigue and distractions.

Parents are well advised to restrict the number of passengers allowed in the vehicle. Additional passengers may be allowed for each year of driving experience. Parents must insist that their teen buckle-up and parents must do so too. If your teen intends on being out after midnight, continue to give them a ride as you did before they got their license. It is better to lose some sleep than pick your teen up at the hospital or morgue. Go for a drive with your teen and discuss the use of the radio or car stereo. Turn it on and figure out an acceptable limit for the volume.

Lastly, don’t let the tail wag the dog. Many parents have difficulty setting limits with their teens. Somehow or other some parents are hostage to the wining of their teen. I have even heard some teens argue that they would rather not drive than have their parents’ restrictions or expectations and so the parents give in!

Don’t give in. Consider yourself lucky if your child won’t drive because they don’t like the rules. This may actually be a safer option if they are demonstrating this kind of emotional immaturity. If try to blackmail you into using the car, this is a big signal to you that they do not yet possess the maturity to handle this privilege and responsibility. Remember, your car, your rules. Your responsibility as a parent continues to be the safety of your child until they are truly independent.

Our son has now been driving 18 months and so far without incident. He must tell us where he is going and when he is returning each time he uses the car. He is restricted to only 3 passengers at this point (zero for the first month and building from there). He cannot use the car after midnight. When asked, he will happily tell us he doesn’t like our rules. Happily for us, he tells us each time after arriving home safely. When he’s older we think he will see the irony in that. Will yours?

Contact Information:

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, Executive Director
I Promise Program
20 Suter Crescent,
Dundas, Ontario, Canada
L9H 6R5
(905) 628-4847
[email protected]

This editorial is provided by the I Promise Program – a teen safe driving initiative that promotes parents as role models by entering into a mutual safe driving contract with their teen. To provide accountability, a rear window decal is then affixed to the vehicle. The decal display a toll free number and the question, “Am I driving safely?” Calls are received by a call center and responses are sent by letter only back to the family. Youth, parents, community members, police and interested stakeholders in traffic safety have participated in developing this program.