Synopsis: Teenage drivers are the most dangerous on the road. Graduated driver’s license programs have improved their record, but a new study finds teen drivers are often distracted before crashes. Brain biology plays a role. Experts discuss distracted driving and ways to get teens to pay attention on the road.

Host: Reed Pence. Guests: Peter Kissinger, President & CEO, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety; Dr. Kelly Browning, Executive Director, Impact Teen Drivers; Dr. Robert Foss, Director, Center for the Study of Young Drivers, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Dr. David Hurwitz, Assistant Professor of Transportation Engineering, Oregon State University

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Distracted Teen Drivers


Reed Pence: In much of America, it’s really hard to get along without a car. Few cities have truly extensive mass transit, and when you get to the suburbs and beyond, a car is almost essential. No wonder teenagers think of a driver’s license as a ticket to freedom. But freedom comes with a price. Inexperience and brain physiology combine to make teenagers the most dangerous drivers on the road.

Peter Kissinger: Car crashes remain the leading cause of death for teenagers in this country. For example in 2013, the last year that we have national statistics available, teen drivers accounted for one million crashes resulting in 380,000 injuries and almost 3000 deaths.

Reed Pence: That’s Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the Triple-A Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Peter Kissinger: And it’s important to recognize also that teen drivers impact more than themselves when they’re unfortunate enough to get in a crash. I mean for every teen driver that dies, there’s an additional passenger typically in the car that dies, and one other person in the other car, or a pedestrian. So this is something that not only affects teens and families that have teen drivers, but it affects every one of us that use the roads.

Reed Pence: That’s why over the last 20 years, states have ramped up graduated drivers license requirements on 16 and 17 year olds. Those rules typically demand an adult be sitting next to a new driver on the road for hours on end as they gain experience. There are more limitations once teens are driving on their own. And Dr. Kelly Browning, Executive Director of Impact Teen Drivers, says those rules have worked.

Kelly Browning: All fifty states in the US have adopted graduated drivers licensing laws. The challenge is every state has a bit of a different structure in their law, but the idea behind them is that you have a three-stage process. A learner’s permit, and then some type of intermediate licensure stage, and then a full licensure. And the idea there is to reduce high risk situations such as night time driving and passengers in the car (which we know are a huge distraction for young people) while giving your child the opportunity to gain needed experience. So reducing the high-risk situations while they gain experience. And it’s really critical that parents and young people choose to follow those graduated drivers licensing laws because we know that they have reduced teen driving fatalities across the US by forty to sixty percent.

Robert Foss: Graduated licensing is far and away the single most effective thing we have ever done probably in traffic safety but certainly with respect to teen drivers.

Reed Pence: Dr. Robert Foss is Director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Robert Foss: There must be four or five dozen studies out there now that show that when a state goes or when states moves to grad licensing, their younger teen driver crashes went down. And 16 year old driver crashes went down pretty dramatically in most states, and 17 year old driver crashes went down more in some states, less then others–it depends on how the particular GDL system is structured. If you have a really good GDL system, then it reduces 17 year old driver crashes as well. So it’s been a massive success.

Reed Pence: That’s certainly a good thing. But Foss says many experts had hoped for more.

Robert Foss: One of the things that we really thought it would do is actually make for better drivers when they first got out on the road on their own, as opposed to riding around with Mom or Dad in the car. And it appears to have done that, but not nearly as much so as we really thought it would. Looks like the bulk of the benefits of GDL come from the fact that when teens start driving now for their first six, nine, twelve months they’re driving basically with Mom or Dad.

Reed Pence: So it may be that GDL’s cut the teen driving death rate by keeping them off the road, not by making them better drivers. Teens still make plenty of mistakes. Biology makes some of them almost inevitable.

Peter Kissinger: Well it turns out that your brain doesn’t get fully developed until you’re probably in your mid twenties, maybe 25, 26, and unfortunately that portion of your brain that develops the slowest is the part that’s sort of your executive function. And, among other things, it’s the part that allows one to assess risk. So, whereas an experienced driver is driving down a residential street and sees up above maybe a little bit of a hill, sees some kids playing with a ball, experienced drivers really intuitively know to be worried about it to keep looking there to make sure, because they would anticipate the possibility of the ball rolling in the street and a young kid following the ball. Unfortunately, teen brains are not wired to automatically understand that. So they just really don’t do a good job of assessing potential risks nor managing if you will with those risks.

Reed Pence: A new study by the AAA Foundation has a lot to say about the mistakes young drivers make. Researchers got access to nearly 1,700 videos of teenage drivers taken by dashboard-mounted cameras in the seconds before a crash. Kissinger says they showed teen drivers who were distracted a great deal of the time.

Peter Kissinger: In almost sixty percent of the case, fifty eight percent of the case, the teen driver was distracted in one way or another. So, basically, they were not engaged in the activity of paying attention while they were driving. The two biggest causes that were found: number one, were passengers in the vehicle, which occurred in about fifteen percent of the cases. And secondarily, cell phones, which we saw in about twelve percent of the cases. And both of those factors substantially increase the risk of those teenagers being in a crash.

Reed Pence: It’s not a sure thing that the distracted driving shown was always the cause of the crash… Although you can’t avoid that conclusion some of the time.

Peter Kissinger: In slightly over fifty percent of the cases when a teenager was actually using a cell phone, they actually ran into the vehicle in front of them without braking or steering. So, in other words, the first time they noticed that they actually were in trouble is when the collision occurred. Now, most likely those teens were experiencing a real phenomena called inattention blindness. And that is a situation where your brain can be so focused on a task at hand which can either be visual or mental, and be so focused on that task at hand that you literally cannot see something right in front of you. It’s almost like driving blind.

Reed Pence: And it’s not just texting that gets teens in trouble driving. It can be just as dangerous to pick up something that’s fallen on the floor, put on makeup, or get into an animated conversation with a passenger. Anything that takes the driver’s eyes off the road.

Peter Kissinger: There’s a long-standing rule of thumb in the traffic safety world, which is you should not take your eyes off the road for longer than two seconds. Because we know that if you do, if eyes off the road goes longer than two seconds, that doubles the chance of you being in a crash. Because the teenage brain has not fully developed, and they haven’t gained the requisite experience to understand and manage risk while they’re driving, teenagers don’t appreciate that they cannot continue to look with their eyes off the road. What we found in our study is a terrible example, is that when the teen was manipulating the phone — not just making a call, but either dialing or texting. The average eyes off the road was 4.1 seconds that’s twice the benchmark that we usually use that we know doubles the chance of being in a crash.

Reed Pence: Kissinger says the teen brain may even confuse what’s most important when making a choice between driving and texting.

Peter Kissinger: From our surveys for example when we talk about distracted driving unfortunately many, many teens will tell us “Hey look it’s not that the cell phone is distracting my driving. It’s that the car is actually distracting my ability to communicate with my friend.”

Reed Pence: However, surveys show the message may be starting to sink in that texting while driving is dangerous. Dr. David Hurwitz is Assistant Professor of Transportation Engineering at Oregon State University.

David Hurwitz: Teens had a comparatively high recognition that activities associated with mobile devices that they bring into their vehicle can constitute distractions if they interact with them while they’re driving. So things like talking on a cell phone or texting while driving comparatively they recognize those as distractions.

Robert Foss: Staring at a phone, trying to dial a number, or type a message, or read a message while you’re driving is just insanely dangerous. And teenagers are not that stupid, you know, they know that this is risky, and we’ve been seeing this and other researchers have been seeing this for years that teenagers go through the same type kind of thought processes that adults do about using phones. And sometimes they slip up and do it anyway just like adults do.

Reed Pence: So how do we get the message through to teenagers? Dr. Kelly Browning of Impact Teen Drivers says her group has been successful.

Kelly Browning: For years we’ve spent a lot of time, energy, and resources on trying to scare teens into wanting to do the right thing. Thirty plus years of psychological literature has shown that trying to scare young people into doing the right thing is not the answer. So, really helping them be empowered to make those good decisions by recognizing it could be that Moment of inattention, that very simple distraction, things that we do every single day that are perfectly acceptable to do until you choose to do them behind the wheel where they become lethal.

Reed Pence: Hurwitz’s study shows that interactive training has much more influence on teens than passive learning such as a lecture.

David Hurwitz: We bring a couple of kids up to the front of the classroom and they would write on a chalkboard or a whiteboard and they would transcribe numbers from one hundred to zero in five interval units. And one student would do it without distraction and a second student would be on a cell phone having a conversation with a researcher. And we would watch inevitably the student engaged in a conversation taking two, or three, or four times as long to complete this very simple task. Things like that.

Reed Pence: However, browning says the biggest influence may be a teen’s parents. Not in what parents say… But how they’ve been driving for years before the teen ever takes the wheel.

Kelly Browning: As a parent you’re the number one role model of your teen’s driving attitudes and behaviors. Meaning if your slugging back the latte, talking on the cell phone, and driving with your knee, you can’t wonder why your kids are going to do the same thing, but probably even at a higher level. So it’s really important that parents recognize they’re the role model, and that they’re also responsible as a gatekeeper to controlling the keys and making sure their child is ready to get behind the wheel of a vehicle.

Reed Pence: It should probably be no surprise that teen drivers are a lot like the rest of us. Browning says 98% of people agree that texting is dangerous while driving, but 75% of people do it anyway. We multi-task at all kinds of things while we drive. Twenty-seven percent of teens admit they’ve even changed clothes or shoes while they’re driving. Just about everyone takes safe driving for granted.

Peter Kissinger: Two thirds of American drivers feel they were born in Lake Wobegon so they’re above average drivers. And I think they mistakenly believe that they have sufficient control that they can always brake or steer out of any situation that develops and unfortunately that’s not the case. Now the good news is that, lets face it, driving crashes are still rather rare but the downside of that is we often get into bad habits. Certainly no one believes that every time you text while you drive you’re gonna have a crash. But what does happen is the more you do that you build up a bad habit and then god forbid when the statistics run against you, you end up with a tragedy in your hands.

Reed Pence: You can find out more about all of our guests through links on our website… Radio health journal-dot-net. I’m Reed Pence.

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