For many teens, the acquisition of a driver’s license is an important rite of passage. Though states require a considerable amount of road time before a teen can get his/her license, teens are still generally considered to be inexperienced drivers. The new-found freedom behind the wheel, independence from adult supervision and youthful sense of immortality can have dangerous consequences.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, automobile accidents are the leading cause of death for teens in the U.S. Each year, roughly 350,000 teens are treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident. Roughly 4,000 teens die from their injuries. Mile for mile, teens are 16 to 19 times more likely to have an accident than older drivers. Male teen drivers are almost twice as likely to die in a motor vehicle accident as female teen drivers.
Distracted driving occurs when the operator of motor vehicle fails to maintain complete attention to the primary task of driving. There are three main types of distractions: visual (i.e., taking your eyes off the road), motor (taking your hands off the steering wheel) and cognitive (taking your mind off the driving task).
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving led to nearly half a million injuries and 6,000 deaths in the U.S. during 2008. The CDC reports 80 percent of motor vehicle crashes occur within 3 seconds of driver distraction.
Distracted driving among teens is a big concern for public health officials. There are many sources of distraction for teens, like music, passengers and activities outside the car. Currently, there is a great deal of concern for distracted driving while using a cell phone. The organization, Impact Teen Drivers, reports about 80 percent of teens own a cell phone. Roughly half of all teens talk on a cell phone while driving.
Teens who are talking on a cell phone don’t have full concentration on the road. When combined with immaturity and inexperience, cell phone use can be a dangerous combination. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports drivers who talk on a cell phone (both hand-held and hands-free) while driving have the same reaction time as someone with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 percent (the level at which a driver is considered to be legally drunk).
The distracted driving situation is worse for teens who text while driving. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reports drivers who text take their eyes off the road for 4.6 to 6 seconds for each text they send or receive. At a speed of 55 miles per hour, that means the driver has his/her eyes off the road for a distance longer than a football field.
At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, researchers are studying the distractive effects of cell phone use among 16- to 18-year-old drivers. The teens use a driving simulator to assess their overall skills while having to deal with common driving situations (like a pedestrian stepping off a curb, a stop light changing from yellow to red or a sudden stop by the driver in front). Next, the teens use the simulator while receiving and sending text messages from a researcher. Finally, the driving simulation is done while the teen is using a hand-held cell phone. Most of the participants agreed that talking on a cell phone and texting was dangerous for other people to be doing. However, the teens were also likely to believe they themselves could safely talk and text while driving. Injury Control Researcher Despina Stavrinos, Ph.D., says it’s hard to get the message across about the dangers of distracted driving. The simulations show teens perform poorly when driving while distracted, yet teens still think they are the best and most careful drivers in the world.
Many states and municipalities are considering, or have enacted laws prohibiting cell phone use or texting while driving. Teens are more likely to obey the laws if there are serious consequences for failing to obey it (like temporary loss of a driver’s license). However, Stavrinos says parents are still the most influential force when it comes to shaping a teen’s driving behaviors.
Federal authorities are attempting to reduce distracted driving by pushing for bans on texting while behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. On January 26, 2010, The U.S. Department of Transportation announced the passage of a ban on texting by drivers of commercial vehicles. Those who are caught texting while driving can be fined up to $2,750. On February 22, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, presented sample legislation to be used by states attempting to develop laws prohibiting texting while driving.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/MotorVehicleSafety/Teen_Drivers
Impact Teen Drivers, http://impactteendrivers.org
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, http://www.iihs.org
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, http://www.nhtsa.gov, or http://www.distraction.gov
National Safety Council, http://teendriver.nsc.org
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