Surprisingly, Texting Isn’t the Leading Cause of Teen Car Wrecks

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

While it’s been known for a while that distracted driving is a major cause of wrecks for teenage drivers, just how common of a problem it really is hasn’t been known until now. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently released a report that shows distracted driving was the cause of 58% of wrecks involving teen drivers. That’s four times higher than previous estimates predicted.

Videos were gathered using an in-car monitoring system from a company called Lytx that families installed in their teen drivers’ cars. When drivers brake hard, take a turn quickly, or receive any sort of impact, the system saves a video that starts eight seconds before that point and ends four seconds after. It also stores acceleration data and audio from those 12 seconds. As a result, families are able to monitor their teens’ driving habits and discourage unsafe or risky driving practices.

For the purpose of the study, Lytx provided AAA with videos from nearly 7,000 teen wrecks, approximately 1,700 of which were used in the study. When the data were complied and analyzed, the results were shocking.

“Access to crash videos has allowed us to better understand the moments leading up to a vehicle impact in a way that was previously impossible. The in-depth analysis provides indisputable evidence that teen drivers are distracted in a much greater percentage of crashes than we previously realized,” said Peter Kissinger, president of the AAA Foundation.

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

As expected, cellphones were a major contributing factor, but they might not be as distracting as you would think. While cellphone use was the cause of 12% of crashes, but it was interacting with passengers that caused 15% of wrecks and was the number one distraction. Other dangerous distractions were looking at something inside the car, looking at something outside the car, dancing or singing while driving, personal grooming, and reaching for something in the vehicle.

“This research is a call to action to reframe the distracted driving issue, especially as it relates to teens. Distracted driving is broader than just texting. In fact, interacting with passengers led to more distraction-related crashes than cellphone use. This reinforces the need for states to pass better passenger restrictions as part of their graduated driver licensing program, and for parents to limit the teen passengers that can ride with their new driver, regardless of the law,” said Jonathan Adkins, director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

This research also helps explain why states are continually finding that texting and cellphone use bans don’t reduce the number of crashes. Texting while driving is certainly distracting, but it only accounts for 12% of wrecks. The other 88% of wrecks happen for different reasons. It’s easy to make it illegal to use a cellphone, but it’s much more difficult to outlaw interacting with passengers, listening to music, or looking at something other than the road.

Graduated drives license programs that don’t immediately give a licensed driver full driving privileges are definitely a step in the right direction. There’s no reason that a 16-year-old should be able to hop into his mom’s minivan the day after he gets his license and drive seven of his friends around on a late night adventure. That’s just asking for trouble. Unfortunately, graduated licensing won’t fix the whole problem.

One of the biggest problems that teen drivers face is that they simply don’t have the skills or the experience to safely navigate dangerous situations or even fully understand just how dangerous a certain situation is. Raising the driving age is a common suggestion, but that’s a solution that doesn’t address the skills and experience deficit inherent to being a new driver. Yes, drivers education programs are required in most states, but with only six hours of driving time required by most of those programs, teens rarely learn to do more than parallel park and hopefully drive to the Walmart without crashing.

Ford MyKey
Source: Ford

Better training is the first step toward creating better drivers, and if states won’t improve their drivers education programs, then parents should take advantage of the many alternative programs that exist. These programs may be more expensive than the ones offered through public high schools, but they teach much more valuable skills. After all, any parent can teach a newly-permitted teen the basics of driving on the road. A car control clinic, on the other hand, teaches young drivers the skills that are more difficult to master.

Any parents looking to find a car control clinic in their state should check out this helpful Consumer Reports directory.

Even with graduated licensing and better drivers education, if parents aren’t involved in monitoring their children’s driving habits, those things won’t do much good. Installing the Lytx system used to gather the information for the AAA study would be a great step, but there are other ways to monitor teen drivers. For example, Ford’s MyKey technology offers parents quite a number of options limiting distractions and increasing safety while their teens are driving the car.

Ultimately, however, these technologies can only help parents, not replace them. Teens need their parents to place rules and restrictions on their driving and then actually enforce them. It’s definitely difficult, but parents need to talk with their teens and have open conversations about why certain behaviors are dangerous and why little decisions matter. Talking about texting while driving is important, but they also need to hear why having a dance party at 80 miles per hour is nearly as dangerous. It might be hard to get through, and a lot of them will brush it off, but there’s no way to tell what they actually absorb.

Being a teenager is rough, and teens make a lot of mistakes, but parents who take the time to show that they care and that they’re sincerely interested in what’s best for their children can have a major impact. It might not be popular to make and enforce important driving rules, but as dangerous as the roads are for teens, that’s exactly what they need.

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