A new report released last week by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) indicates that the number of 16- and 17-year-old drivers killed in motor vehicle crashes nationwide increased 11 percent for the first six months of 2011. Safety advocates and researchers are watching these number closely—if the trend continues through the second half of 2011, it will end eight straight years of cumulative declines in deaths for this age group.
Here in New Jersey, preliminary 2011 data compiled by the New Jersey State Police Fatal Accident Reporting Unit shows that deaths involving teen drivers 16-20 years of age increased markedly from 19 in 2010 to 31 in 2011. A closer look at the numbers reveals that 2 of the drivers were under 16 years of age, while 4 were 17, 9 were 18, 5 were 19, and 11 were 20.
What’s causing the increase in teen driver deaths? Dr. Allan Williams, author of the GHSA report and former chief scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), indicated that the benefits of state Graduated Driver License (GDL) programs may be leveling off as these initiatives mature. He also points to the improving economic conditions, which may be prompting teens to drive more thereby increasing their exposure to risk.
Dr. Williams notes, however, that “while it is not a surprise that these numbers are stabilizing or slightly increasing, states should not accept these deaths as something that cannot be prevented. More work can and should be done to save teen lives.”
What else can we do in New Jersey, a state that is recognized as having a good GDL program? First, it’s imperative that everyone understand that teen driving isn’t a just a parent or police problem, but a community-wide problem. That’s because when teen drivers crash they don’t just injure or kill themselves. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of the 5,021 people killed in crashes involving young drivers in 2010, 1,963 or 39% were the teen drivers, while the remaining 61% of the victims were either the teen drivers’ passengers (1,326 or 26%), or pedestrians or occupants (1,732 or 35%) of other vehicles.
Get educated about teen driving -- learn the risks and how GDL works to address those risks. The New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition, a partnership of The Allstate Foundation and the National Safety Council, has compiled a wealth of free information and resources that can be accessed through its online GDL toolkit.
Bring a teen safe driving parent/teen program to your school or community. AAA, the New Jersey State Safety Council and the NJ Division of Highway Traffic Safety (DHTS) and Kean University have developed free programs designed to educate participants about teen driving and the state’s GDL program. I facilitate a program called “Share the Keys,” developed by DHTS and Kean University, and repeatedly hear from participants how it has not only expanded their understanding of the issue, but prompted them to take action.
Last week, I conducted a session for approximately 60 parents and teens at my son’s high school, West Morris Central. One of the moms who attended (her daughter is 17 and holds a probationary license) commented to me prior to the start of our sons’ ice hockey game on Saturday night that the family is now spending more time around the kitchen table talking about teen driving.
I also urge families to make lots of time for practice. While New Jersey’s GDL program doesn’t require teens to log a minimum number of practice hours during the permit or supervised driving phase (research confirms that at least 30 to 50 hours of practice, 10 of those at night, is highly recommended), getting your novice driver on the road is critical for building skill. It’s no different than perfecting a sport, a musical instrument or some other task -- if you want to get really good at something, there’s no substitute for practice.
And once your teen is licensed, don’t stop coaching him or monitoring his driving. As the 2011 New Jersey fatality numbers show, the risk for teens doesn’t stop once they’re holding a probationary (restricted) or basic (unrestricted) license. Eighty percent of the teen drivers who were killed in New Jersey last year were between 18 and 20 years of age.
As the parent of a teen who is learning to drive, I absolutely understand the pressure parents face in allowing their teens to get behind the wheel. It is without a doubt one of the most frightening things we’ll ever do. But we have a scientifically proven tool to help us get our kids through the most dangerous time of their lives -- Graduated Driver Licensing. By learning about and leveraging the proven principles of GDL -- limiting passengers and nighttime driving, prohibiting any type of cell phone or electronic device use while driving, and reinforcing the lifesaving importance of buckling up -- we can make sure the risk for our teens is minimized.