It seems like an innocent thing to do. You're running late so you ask your teenager to drive one of his or her younger siblings to t-ball practice. You child is responsible and a good driver. What's the harm?
First, statistics indicate that teenagers are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents than adults. Perhaps equally important, teenagers in general seem less likely to follow the prescribed procedures for transporting children, i.e., having them ride in the back seat, insisting that they are properly restrained in a child-safety seat, etc.
A national study of car crashes reports that children who were driven by teenagers were three times as likely to have a serious injury as those who were driven by adults. Interestingly, the risk was highest for young teenaged passengers, those ages 13 to 15, not for younger children.
According to researchers from Partners for Child Passenger Safety (PCPS), a research partnership of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm, teen drivers were more likely than adult drivers to be involved in more severe crashes and less likely to have child passengers under age nine properly restrained. The study, published in this month's issue of Injury Prevention, looked at the cases of 19,111 children who were involved in 12,163 crashes reported to State Farm.
Overall, teenagers were the drivers in just four percent of these child-involved crashes. But when a child was injured, teenagers were much more likely to be driving. Some 12 percent of the injured children had a teen driver. And while this might conjure up the image of teenagers fooling around together and getting in over their heads, the study showed that 40 percent of teen-driven child passengers were younger than 13, suggesting that teens regularly drive younger children.
"The excess risk of injury to children in teen driver crashes can be primarily explained by the more severe crashes those teen drivers incurred," said Flaura Winston, MD, Ph.D., principal investigator for Partners for Child Passenger Safety and the scientific director of TraumaLink, a pediatric injury research center at Children's Hospital. "The severity is likely a function of a teen driver's inexperienced driving or risk-taking behavior and immaturity."
Statistics showed that children were less likely to be properly belted in when teenagers were at the wheel, and it also noted that child passengers were more likely to be seated in the front seat when driven by 15- to 17-year-old drivers. Children riding with these novice teen drivers were three times as likely to have no restraint at all as those accompanied by adult drivers.
"Parents need to understand the excess risk of allowing their teens to drive younger siblings," said Winston. "Parents should reinforce over and over the importance of safe driving habits among their teens to not only reduce their high crash rates but also to make sure that the teen driver and the passengers are appropriately restrained on every trip."
Boston-bred journalist Tom Ripley now covers the automotive world and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.