Conference Coverage

Inexperience is the main cause of unsafe driving among teens


Interventions to improve teens’ driving safety

Most teens take a basic driver education course before getting their licenses, but no evidence shows that it reduces risk of citations, crashes, or injury. In fact, “skid control training and other kinds of advanced skill training seem to increase crash risk, particularly among young males,” Dr. Johnston said.

What helps teens most is, ironically, more driving.

“If I say inexperience is the single most important risk factor for dying in a crash as a teen, driving experience is the intervention,” he said. More time spent driving – “with supervision in particular, and under diverse conditions,” Dr. Johnston said – increases the repertoire of skills and abilities.

Parents should be encouraged to ride along as their teens drive under diverse road conditions: different roads, different times of the day, and different weather conditions, for example. Parents can narrate their own driving, pointing out hazards and times when they slow down for increased caution, Dr. Johnston said. It might feel “awkward and unnatural,” but “some of the things you as a driver notice all the time are novel to teen drivers.”

Parents can influence road safety for teens in terms of their own behavior and in selecting a safer vehicle. A strong correlation exists between parental texting while driving when children are younger and what they do as teen drivers, for example.

Safer vehicles are bigger, heavier cars with electronic stability control, which reduces risk of death about as much as wearing seat belts. Parents should avoid vehicles with high horsepower and look for cars with the best safety ratings they can afford, Dr. Johnston said.

Several special features in newer cars can help reduce crash risk, such as blind spot detection, automatic breaking, collision avoidance systems, lane departure warning systems, and driver drowsiness detection. Parents may worry that relying on this technology could reduce teens’ learning, but it actually can compensate for skill deficits as they are becoming more skilled drivers.

Parents can look into feedback programs such as smartphone apps or other in-car units that allow parents to see data on teens’ speed, unsafe driving, “near-misses,” and similar driving behaviors. Research has shown that unsafe driving in newly licensed teens dropped by 66% over 4 months of using one of these feedback programs, compared with teens who didn’t use it.

Dr. Johnston also discussed the idea of prelicensure medical exams, similar to physicals that are required before playing sports. These already exist for commercial licenses in most states, but no data exist on whether it’s effective for teens. The goal would be to promote a discussion between parents and their teens about driving: reviewing medications the teen is taking and whether they affect driving; discussing safety of different vehicles; and assessing the teens’ risks, including any cognitive or other medical conditions that could affect driving safety. Even if such a “driving physical” is not currently required, pediatricians can do their own version of one with families.

Dr. Johnston had no disclosures.


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