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Oct. 16-20 marks the ninth annual observance of National Teen Driver Safety Week, which is dedicated to raising awareness and seeking solutions to preventing crashes, injuries and fatalities involving teen drivers. This is critical since car crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens 15 to 20 years of age.
The good news is that from 2005 to 2014 fatalities among teen drivers fell 51%, while serious and minor injuries for this same age group dropped 59% and 54%, respectively. Building on this positive change, fatal crashes per 100,000 licensed drivers declined 44% for teens compared to 27% for drivers 35 to 40 years of age during this same time period. That decrease has been fueled by the adoption of Graduated Driver License (GDL) laws in all 50 states, which are credited with reducing crashes among teens by 10-30%, along with a decline in teen licensure sparked by the 2008 economic recession.
Now for the bad news: Fatalities in crashes involving teen drivers increased 10% in 2015. That compares to a 7.7% uptick overall for motor vehicle deaths. This spike is not only concerning, but may continue based on what preliminary crash data indicate for the first six months of this year. Also troubling is the fact that the gains made in teen driver safety during the previous decade, were considerably less for 18- to 20-year-old drivers then for their 15- to 17-year-old counterparts. Additionally, older teen drivers are involved in more fatal crashes than younger teens.
So what's the headline for National Teen Driver Safety Week? Our mission is NOT accomplished! Let me repeat, our mission is not accomplished.
To galvanize the State Highway Safety Offices and others working to address teen safe driving, the Governors Highway Safety Association issued the new report, Mission Not Accomplished: Teen Safe Driving, the Next Chapter, prior to the start of Teen Driver Safety Week. The report, which I researched and wrote through funding from the Ford Motor Company Fund, discusses in detail the findings briefly described above. Not only does it call out the disparity between younger and older teen drivers, but also notes that teen drivers are still 1.6 times more likely than adult drivers to die in a crash.
So what's the answer? While there's no magic bullet, GDL is the most effective tool we have in the teen driving toolbox. That is why the report recommends expanding the three-stage licensing system to include all teen drivers under 21 years of age. With the exception of New Jersey, teens in nearly all other states are either exempt from and/or age out of GDL at 18. Since one in three teens are not licensed by 18, that means they're not reaping the benefits of this proven program.
The GHSA report also includes recommendations for increased training, partnering with colleges and universities to develop and deliver safe driving programs, and educating parents about the importance of continuing to coach and monitor their older teen drivers. As the mother of a 21-year-old, I can't overstate the importance of staying involved. Teens welcome parental input and say parents are their number one influencer when it comes to driving. That doesn't end when a teen turns 18. In fact, I would argue that it's more important than ever since reaching age 18 doesn't necessarily equate to mental maturity – which is essential for safe driving.
Whether you're a traffic safety professional, advocate, elected official, employer, educator and/or parent, I urge you to review the report, determine what you can do, and then take action so that one day soon we can say: Mission accomplished.