It’s a rite of passage for many teenagers: the moment when they get behind the wheel and start driving. But this often has a tragic corollary.
Teenagers are significantly more likely to crash in their first month of driving than they are after their first two years of solo driving, according to a new study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
During this initial month, teens are 50 percent more likely to crash as they are after a year and twice as likely to crash as they are after two years.
“The fact that the parents are no longer in the car can make a big difference,” said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II. “There’s not enough life experience and not enough time under their belt to negotiate everything that can crop up on the road.”
Invariably, the parent or guardian who initially rides shotgun is replaced by other teenagers, resulting in distractions, loud music and peer pressure, Townsend said.
The same three mistakes were at the root of 57 percent of crashes at least partially caused by teens in their first month of licensed driving, according to the study: failing to slow down, failing to yield and a lack of attention.
Car accidents are the leading cause of death for teens in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. More than 2,300 drivers between 15 and 20 years old were killed nationwide in 2009, the last year for which data were available. More than 70 percent of those drivers were male.
Other studies from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show that laws that restrict teen driving contribute to lower crash rates. The District and most states, including Maryland and Virginia, have graduated licensing laws that restrict nighttime driving and the number of passengers in the car.
“It’s proving to be a successful way to keep teens safer,” said Anne McCartt, senior vice-president for research at the institute.
The number of drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 involved in fatal crashes dropped 37 percent between 2000 and 2009, according to NHTSA. For all drivers, the decline was 21 percent over the same period.
Although the number of teen fatalities has decreased, it remains a major problem, said Kara Macek, spokeswoman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.
“We’re losing thousands of teenagers every year on our roads, so we still have a lot of progress to be made,” Macek said.
The new study, which was released to mark the beginning of National Teen Driver Safety Week on Sunday, was conducted by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center for the AAA Foundation. Researchers looked at crashes involving new drivers in North Carolina from the beginning of 2001 through 2008.
“Teens have an elevated crash rate because they’re youthful, immature and inexperienced,” McCartt said. “Drivers of any age that are newer drivers have higher crash rates, but for teens that’s compounded by being young.”
Parents can play a hands-on role even after they stop riding along for every outing, Townsend said. They should continue to talk to their children about their driving habits and emphasize careful driving.
“They want their independence, but if you get them through their first month, you’ll probably save lives and prevent a lot of accidents,” Townsend said. “This is instructive and a wake-up call for adults, too.”