Driver Errors Explain Most Teen Crashes, Experts Say

Inexperience, not reckless driving, causes most collisions, study finds

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By Kathleen Doheny
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, April 12 (HealthDay) -- Driver error accounts for the majority of U.S. motor vehicle crashes involving teenagers, a new study finds.

A study of about 800 serious crashes involving teen drivers found that inexperience and distraction, not reckless driving or alcohol, caused the collisions.

"This study shows the vast majority of crashes occur not because the teen drivers are behaving badly, but because they have not yet developed the crucial skills they need,'' said Allison Curry, director of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Curry and her colleagues studied 795 serious crashes involving 822 teen drivers, using a nationally representative federal database.

Seventy-six percent of the crashes were due to a critical teen driving error, they found.

And three common errors accounted for nearly half of all serious crashes: lack of ''scanning'' skill to assess the environment sufficiently while behind the wheel; driving too fast for road conditions (not necessarily going over the speed limit, however); or being distracted by something inside or outside of the vehicle.

Conducted with State Farm Insurance Companies, the study is published April 11 in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention.

Nationwide, in 2008, more than 600,000 teens were injured in vehicle crashes; more than 4,000 teenagers died, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death among 13- to 19-year-olds.

Curry and her colleagues looked at the ''critical reason'' for each of the crashes they studied. That's defined as the critical error that occurs right before the crash.

For instance, while negotiating a left turn, a teen driver may not ''scan" enough to the left and be hit by oncoming traffic.

For parents with teen drivers or those about to drive, the study has some practical applications, Curry said.

"The study really points to specific skills that parents can work on with their teens when teaching them how to drive," Curry said. She recommends that parents do the following:

  • Teach teen drivers to scan. Encourage them to look far ahead of the car and to the left and right to be aware of the environment, she said.
  • Reduce distractions by restricting use of electronic devices such as cell phones, she said, and making sure passengers are not disruptive.
  • Work on speed control. Besides obeying the speed limit, teens must learn how to manage speed for road conditions, traffic or weather, Curry said.

Overall, Curry said, the study ''breaks the myth that crashes occur due only to aggressive driving."

By providing specific crash information, the study suggests a need for more effective interventions to improve driving skills, such as hazard awareness training, said Dr. Karen Sheehan, medical director of the Injury Prevention and Research Center at Children's Memorial Hospital, Chicago. She reviewed the study findings for HealthDay.

The finding that teen driver error explains most crashes is also helpful, she said. "Even just being aware of this fact may help teens drive more carefully," she said.

However, safe driving takes more than awareness. She suggested working with teen drivers to improve skills they lack and enlisting driver training programs to help address those skills.

The new research builds on some previous work by the National Safety Council, said John Ulczycki, group vice president of strategic initiatives for the council. A council analysis found driver-related factors reported in more than 70 percent of fatal crashes involving young drivers.

Curry's work builds on this, he said, by providing some valuable details about the specific types of errors.

More information

To learn more about teen driving, visit TeenDriversSource.org .

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