As teen driver fatalities rise, parents and others must take notice
National Teen Driver Safety Week runs this week, October 18–24 and Connecticut, which has some of the toughest laws in the country, saw last year the highest number of 16- and 17-year-old drivers killed in crashes since the laws were passed 12 years ago.
This is a serious signal that parents, law enforcement, state licensing and transportation officials — and most of all, teen drivers themselves — need to heed. In 2019 five teen drivers and three passengers died, the most teen drivers killed in any one year since 2008 when stronger laws were passed to help prevent such crashes. After years of great progress, this is an alarming uptick in teen driver fatalities and no doubt there are injuries in other crashes without fatalities.
In fact, more 17-year-old drivers and passengers combined died in crashes from 2015 through October 2020, according to state-compiled crash reports, than 16-year-olds for that same time period. Most likely this stems from those very laws discouraging early licensure and imposing severe passenger restrictions during the first year after obtaining a license.
When looking at the most recent complete years of state crash statistics, 2015-2019, a total of 14 teen drivers 16 and 17 years old were killed while a total of seven passengers died.
Granted these all may seem like small numbers, but they are very real people who are no longer with their families, will not see graduations, will not experience college, will not have professions and will not be there to see their own parents grow old. These are preventable deaths.
Car crashes are the leading cause of teen deaths. With this in mind and after a series of deadly teen crashes in 2007, former Gov. M. Jodi Rell created a task force to overhaul Connecticut’s teen driver laws. At the time, Connecticut’s laws were among the most lenient in the nation.
Professionals from medicine, law enforcement, driver education, transportation research as well as bereaved parents, public officials, teens and school administrators met for several months. They heard expert testimony, learned about the causes of teen crashes and ways to help prevent them.
The task force recommended to the governor and Legislature laws that now are among the strictest in the nation. Included was the required two-hour safety information class for both parents and teens, improved training requirements, extended curfew and passenger restrictions, mandatory seat belt use, strict limits on texting and use of electronics, and new fines and license suspensions for violations. In addition, the task force recommended a first-in-the-nation immediate 48-hour suspension of a license for serious violations.
The laws produced dramatic reductions in fatal crashes for these 16- and 17-year-old drivers. For instance, fatal crashes dropped by more than 70 percent shortly after the new tougher laws were passed in 2008.
Connecticut has strong teen driving laws — among the strongest in the nation. Public health researchers have shown that strict teen driver laws significantly lower teenage car crash rates by 20 percent to 40 percent. But we continue to see car crashes where teen drivers and their passengers die. A recent study by Connecticut Children’s researchers showed that half of teenage driving fatalities occurred in crashes where laws for novice drivers were being violated.
The human brain is not fully developed in teens and does not fully develop until about 25 years old. It is difficult for teens to gauge risk, including when driving. Most of the literature doesn’t explain why teen driving is so dangerous. The teen brain just isn’t ready to handle risk and assess danger and that’s why teens are impulsive.
We implore parents to step forward and take action.
Parents must have zero tolerance for texting and cell phones. The cell phone goes in the glove box while the teen is driving and never push a kids to get licenses if they are not ready. These are their children, not their chauffeurs for younger kids in the family.
Also, mothers and fathers shouldn’t put their convenience first. Parents will say, “I can take the night off. I have a chauffeur in the house. Go pick up your brother at sports practice or pick up the pizza.”
Here are some other tips for parents:
Passengers are not just along for the ride. They need to take a strong and pro-active approach to helping teens understand the consequences of their choices when operating or riding in a vehicle.
Parents need to know who is driving their teen and the extent of his or her driving experience. Did that driver gain driving experience under Connecticut’s graduated driver licensing law or did the driver bypass this requirement and simply get a license at 18 years old?
Parents need to continuously monitor and guide their teenagers’ driving activity, and limit their travel to purposeful driving. Once teens begin to engage in joy-riding, their crash risk increases dramatically, and more so with each additional teenage passenger.
Parents must be aware that driver’s education is not the panacea for making teens safer drivers. The best way to provide teens with meaningful experience is to have parents drive with them as often as possible under variable conditions (inclement weather, nighttime driving).
Police need to enforce and reinforce with both teens and parents Connecticut’s graduated driver licensing laws. Yes, that can be time consuming when there are so many other demands on law enforcement, but it also can save the lives of the youngest and most vulnerable drivers in their communities.
Bill Seymour, former chief of staff of the Department of Motor Vehicles, oversaw the work of the Governor’s Task Force on Teen Safe Driving, and started the DMV’s Center for Teen Safe Driving and related activities.
Brendan Campbell, pediatric surgeon at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, was also a member of the task force.
Sherry Chapman, author of How Much Big Is the Sky: A Memoir of a Mother’s Love and Unfathomable Loss and was a member of the task force.
Tim Hollister, co-author of Not So Fast: Parenting Your Teen Through the Dangers of Driving, was a member of the task force.
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