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Crisis Response

Preventing Teen Motor Vehicle Accidents

Multifaceted approaches to making a difference.

Data from the 2007 WISQARS (Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System) provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that unintentional injury is the leading cause of death for 13- to 18-year-olds in the United States, with motor vehicle accidents accounting for approximately 70 percent of deaths. In total, 3,733 teens died in the year 2007 from motor-vehicle-related accidents.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also surveys high school students every two years through the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBSS).The YRBSS provides additional data on the scope of unintentional injuries—in particular, spotlighting behaviors that may be contributing to teen deaths in motor vehicle accidents. Its 2009 report indicated the following:

• Nearly 10 percent of teens rarely or never wore a seatbelt.

• About 28 percent rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol one or more times in the last 30 days.

• Nearly 10 percent drove when drinking alcohol one or more times in last 30 days. These data have important implications regarding prevention efforts.

Graduated Driver Licensing

A key prevention initiative is the graduated driver-licensing program that phases in full driving privileges for teens. Inexperienced drivers are involved in two times more crashes as experienced drivers. Several factors that play a role in teen motor vehicle accidents are overestimation of driving abilities, speeding, low risk appraisal of dangerous driving behaviors and developmental immaturity.

Graduated driver licensing is in place in all U.S. states; however, many parents are still unaware of the restrictions associated with each phase. In an effort to keep parents informed, schools should hold informational meetings and distribute information about the graduated driver licensing laws in their respective state.

There are typically three stages to the graduated driver-licensing system:

1. Supervised learner’s period

2. Intermediate licensing that limits driving in high-risk situations except under supervision (driving at night and driving anytime with numerous passengers)

3. Gaining a license with full privileges and no restrictions

Access to Driver Education

An equally important factor is student access to and completion of driver education. A recent article featured in the March 2012 journal Pediatrics highlighted several moderators that reduced the likelihood of students completing driver education in both states that mandated it as well as those that did not. Data from a 2006 survey consisting of 1,770 high school students (who held driver licenses) revealed that Hispanic and African American students, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and students with lower academic achievement were less likely to complete driver education. This raises the question: How can we make driver education more accessible to all students?

After tragic car accidents, it is very common for students to want to do something to channel their emotions toward preventing further deaths. In 2009, one teen at University School in Fort Lauderdale researched the dangers of cell phone use and texting and created a program called STATIC (Stop Texting and Talking in Cars) at his school. He also spearheaded a program where driver simulation equipment was brought into his school and students simulated driving while texting. After completing the simulated driver experience, many University School students commented that they would never again be “intexticated” while driving.

SADD Empowers Student Leaders

The most well-known prevention program might be Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), which was founded in 1981. It empowers young people to lead education and prevention initiatives in their schools and communities. Research has shown that students in schools with active SADD chapters are more likely to hold attitudes reflecting positive reasons not to use alcohol.

A unique feature of SADD’s program is the implementation of the “Contract for Life,” signed both by students and parents, which solidifies their commitment to not getting in a car operated by anyone under the influence or operating a car themselves while under the influence.

Texas-Based Shattered Dreams

Another valuable prevention program that can be implemented by schools is Shattered Dreams, a Texas-based program developed in 1998. It involves the dramatization of an alcohol-related crash on or near a high school campus, complete with police and EMS responses, emergency room treatment, family notifications, and the arrest and booking of the offending driver. The drama is played out in front of the student body during a school day to help students understand the dangers of drinking and driving. It also includes an assembly featuring those who played an acting role in the drama as well as impact statements made by local community members whose lives have been affected by alcohol-related accidents.

Schools can also help parents recognize the dangers of cell phone use while driving through the dissemination of articles and by holding evening forums for parents. For example, many parents are unaware that there are software programs that prevent cell phone use while in moving cars. Additional prevention efforts should be centered on classroom teachers openly discussing with their students the dangers of cell phone use while driving and reinforcing the importance of wearing seat belts.

As with many social epidemics that result in the death of teens, it takes a communitywide approach working together to openly address and raise awareness about the importance of safe driving. Let’s make it a priority to deal with this issue in a responsible and proactive manner.

Scott Poland is a professor at Nova Southeastern University (NSU). Michael Pusateri, a clinical psychology doctoral student at NSU, also contributed to this article.