Understanding teen driver car crashes and what parents can do

Written by Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

teendriverAside from the first year of life, the first year of driving is the most dangerous year 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. Do you know how to protect your teen?

Why are young drivers at greater risk?

Whenever we get behind the wheel of a car we begin the process of risk analysis and risk assessment. We look 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.

Successful risk assessment is based on experience. 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.

Experienced drivers wanted

When I drive, I base my risk analysis and assessment on 30 years of driving experience. I have a wealth of experience to help me analyze and assess any given situation. I know what happens to my car’s traction at high speeds or on wet roads. I know how much space I need to change lanes and how far back to start braking for a red light.

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 choice they make.

This is well known to insurance companies and underscored by the fact that young person’s 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.

Truth and consequences

The tragedy for teen drivers is that the consequences of poor choices are so often fatal. In many other areas of life there is room for mistakes, but when it comes to driving teens are taking their life – and the lives of their passengers and the lives of others on the road – into their hands, literally. The margin for error is so small that parents have to put rules in place to protect their teen and others. Consider the alternative:

  • 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 judgment.
  • 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.

Parents need to keep parenting

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.

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 circumstances.

Limits and responsibilities

Parents must talk with their teens. Setting limits and determining responsibilities, expectations and restrictions on the use of the car will reduce the risk of their son or daughter’s involvement in a crash. It is likely that your teen will object, but remember, you are still the parent.

Several factors contribute to teen car crashes, injuries and fatalities. The main ones include:

  • Driving after midnight
  • Seatbelt use
  • Number of passengers
  • Intoxicants
  • Fatigue
  • Distractions

You can reduce these risk factors by establishing rules for the use of your car.

  • Restrict the number of passengers allowed in the vehicle. Additional passengers may be allowed for each year of driving experience.
  • Insist that your teen buckle-up and make sure that you buckle-up when you are driving.
  • Place a midnight curfew on the car. If your teen is going to be out past midnight, go and pick them up. It is better to lose some sleep than pick your teen up at the hospital or morgue.
  • Discuss an acceptable limit for the volume on the stereo while driving.
  • 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. 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 they 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?

2 Responses to “Understanding teen driver car crashes and what parents can do”

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    Hi JW, what were the circumstances that led up to the accident? Was it your fence or someone else’s? How has it impacted your teen? -no pun intended :)

  • JW says:

    What is an acceptable reaction to teens first accident. Driving into a fence? Teen driving less than six months Thanks JW

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