Saving Teens Also Saves Others

Over the last decade, the challenge of keeping teenage drivers safe has come to the forefront, and new efforts are already paying dividends. An unexpected dividend is the fact that the efforts to make the roads safer for teens has, in addition, made the roads safer for all of us. 

One big step in improving teen driver safety came in the form of so-called graduated driver licensing laws (GDLs) that ease teens into their responsibilities behind the wheel. While graduated driver licensing laws nationwide are estimated to have saved hundreds of lives by reducing the number of teen driver crashes, a new analysis of teen crash data by the Automobile Club of Southern California and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that such efforts also resulted in 540 fewer deaths of others in teen driver crashes.  

“That's saving 540 lives of passengers of teen drivers, occupants of other vehicles involved in teen driver crashes and of non-motorists -- all of whom might have been killed if young-driver crashes had continued at the same level throughout the last decade,” said Steven A. Bloch, Ph.D., the Auto Club’s senior research associate. “The drop demonstrates the effectiveness of the GDL laws over that time period and underscores the positive link between teen driver safety and everyone’s safety on the road. That’s especially significant because crashes of older drivers weren’t declining nearly as quickly as those of younger drivers.”

Despite the success of graduated licensing laws, teen drivers continue to pose significant risks, particularly to others on the road. The new report, Teen Crashes -- Everyone is at Risk, looked at the change in teen driver crash deaths over the past 10 years -- the period when most states were enacting graduated driver licensing laws -- and found the results encouraging, but the work is far from finished. From 1998 through 2007, young drivers, aged 15-17, killed in teen driver crashes dropped by 27 percent (from 1,134 to 823). But even with the lifesaving provisions of graduated driver licensing, vehicle passengers and other motorists continue to be the most likely victims in teen driver crashes. Nationally, 63 percent of the 28,138 fatalities in teen driver crashes between 1998 and 2007 were passengers, drivers of other vehicles or non-motorists, and the toll was staggering (17,750 victims). Just 37 percent of those who were killed in teen crashes were the teen drivers themselves.

California teen crash statistics also show a reduction in deaths resulting from teen driver crashes, after graduated driver licensing was instituted, but revealed the same trend: a continued high percentage of fatalities are victims other than the teen driver. Statewide, teen drivers killed in crashes dropped by 13.3 percent over the period studied, and though teen driver crashes killed 1,855 people, just 29 percent (542) were teen drivers themselves. The remaining 70 percent included 631 passengers in the vehicle operated by the teen, 463 occupants of other vehicles operated by adult drivers and 219 non-motorists.

An Auto Club analysis shows that teen drivers of ages 16 to19 make up about 4 percent of California’s driving population but are at fault in about 14 percent of all fatal and injury crashes. And this figure is made worse by the fact that teens drive only about half as many miles as older drivers.

So what can we do to limit the teen driving problem and make the highways safer for us all? Kathy Downing, manager of the Auto Club Driving School, says parents need to set strict driving rules for their teens.

“Parents should be clear where, with whom, when, and under what weather and road conditions teens drive,” she told us. “There’s no magic age or number of months driving that must pass to make teens safe drivers. Only parents, after consistent involvement with their teens’ driving, can help make that determination.”

It’s a responsibility that has implications for all of us, regardless of age.