Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Multitasking teens behind steering wheels and car accidents

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers. Time to talk to our teens on how to drive more safely.

Recently, 10 Michigan teens were injured, two of them severely, in a motor vehicle accident when the teen driver tried to switch seats with a passenger while the vehicle was moving. The car went off the road, rolled over and landed in the median. Shocked? Read on…

MVAs are the leading cause of death for teenagers. As a matter of fact, the risk of MVAs is higher among 16 to 19-year-olds than among any other age group. In 2013 in the United States, 2,163 teens in this age group were killed (six teens a day) and 243,243 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in MVAs.

Per mile driven, teen drivers in this age group are nearly three times more likely than drivers ages 20 and older to be involved in a fatal crash. Those teens with the highest risk are 16- to 17-year-olds, male drivers, teens driving with teen passengers, and teens driving within the first months after receiving their drivers' licenses. Although young drivers are less likely than adults to drive after drinking alcohol, their crash risk is substantially higher when they do.

What is it about teen drivers that puts them at such high risk for MVAs? Compared with older drivers, teens are more likely to:

  1. underestimate dangerous situations

  2. speed and allow shorter distance from the front of one vehicle to the front of the next

  3. not wear seat belts; of the teens who died in passenger vehicle crashes, about half were not wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash

  4. get in a MVA when they are distracted

Distracted driving is another activity that takes your attention away from driving. Easy to define but a doozy to fix. And it's not just that teens are using cell phones: In one study, about one in four teens said they sometimes change clothes and shoes while driving; and in another study, teens were observed changing contact lenses, putting on makeup and doing homework behind the wheel.

These "little" distractions add up. A recent AAA Foundation in-car study showed that teen drivers were distracted almost a quarter of the time they were behind the wheel. Use of electronic devices, such as texting, emails and downloading music, were among the biggest distractions. The researchers discovered that the distraction "latency" lasted up to 27 seconds, meaning that, even after drivers put down the phone or stopped fiddling with the navigation system, they weren't fully engaged with driving.

Distracted driving can result in MVAs for drivers of all ages...but younger drivers are more likely to suffer the consequences, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers installed accelerometers, cameras, global positioning systems, and other sensors in the vehicles of 42 newly licensed teen drivers and 109 adults with more driving experience. They identified 167 crashes and near-crashes among novice drivers and 518 crashes and near-crashes among experienced drivers during the study period. Both groups of drivers performed other tasks like eating and using cell phones at about the same rates, although these increased among young drivers over the 18-month study period, possibly because of increased confidence in driving over time.

Here's what the researchers found: Compared with experienced drivers, new drivers were up to eight times more likely to be involved in a crash or near-crash when dialing a cell phone, reaching for an object other than a cell phone, looking at a roadside object, eating or drinking a nonalcoholic beverage. The authors of the study concluded that distracted driving was associated with a significantly increased risk of a crash or near-crash among new drivers.

My advice:

  1. Buckle up: Research shows that seat belts reduce serious crash-related injuries and deaths by about half.

  2. Heads up: Teach your teens to keep their eyes on the road ahead of them.

  3. Fess up: We've all done things while driving that are distracting, but starting right now, it's time to start setting a better example for our kids.

Have a question for the Healthy Kids panel? Ask it here. Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »