Fatal Teen Crashes Up Sharply - When They Have Friends in the Car

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 27, 2013

A new report concludes that new teenage drivers (aged 15 to 17) are eight times more likely than 18- to 24-year-olds to get involved in fatal crashes if they have their peers in the car with them. The report doesn’t firmly establish why this is, but officials point an accusing finger at rampant texting and mobile social media use.

There's both good and bad news in the latest teen fatality statistics. (Texas A&M Transportation Institute)
There's both good and bad news in the latest teen fatality statistics. (Texas A&M Transportation Institute)

According to Russell Henk, a senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, “It’s the fundamental distraction dynamic inside the vehicle. If you have two or more 16-year-olds, somebody in the passenger seat is going to say, ‘Look what so-and-so just put on Instagram or Facebook.’ It’s just what they do.” Teen speeding is also a factor, the report says.

The Texas study looked at 10 years of national data involving passengers aged 13 to 17, then compared that to data involving young adult drivers. “For novice drivers carrying two or more passengers in 2011,” the researchers said, “the teen passenger/fatal crash connection was 7.7 times more likely, up from 5.9 a decade earlier—a relative increase of about 30 percent.”

The good news is that, overall, the number of 15- to 17-year-old driving fatalities in the U.S. is down sharply in the last 10 years, from 2,832 in 2002 to 1,134 in 2011 (the most recent year available). The count is also way down for 18- to 24-year-old drivers (from 11,809 to 7,678 in the same period). As Henk points out, “It’s just this particular driving scenario [teenagers together in a car] that’s a very risky one.”

Of course, nearly all states now have what are called graduated licensing laws that put restrictions on just that situation. In most places, novice drivers aren’t supposed to drive with more than one other 16- or 17-year-old in the car. Some states define 18-year-olds as adults that are safe to drive with; others say 21.

In my state of Connecticut, where I now have two teenager drivers on the road, the restrictions are some of the toughest in the nation. For the first six months after getting a license, 16- and 17-year-olds can drive only with their parents or an instructor who’s at least 20 years old. After six months, brothers and sisters can be added. There’s zero tolerance for cellphones or other mobile devices, and a curfew between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

But the law gets violated all the time. “We believe anecdotally that parents don’t really understand the graduated licensing laws,” said Henk. “Kids can get ticketed for breaking them, but it’s not easily enforceable. They may have to be speeding or committing some other primary violation to get pulled over.”

Perhaps for a future study, it would be worthwhile to look at the correlation between tough laws and fatality rates. Texas has graduating licensing, and both a curfew and restrictions on carrying peer passengers, but it also has the largest number of fatalities involving 15- to 17-year-olds, 85 in 2011. Florida is in second place (64 fatalities) followed by California (62). Obviously, the sheer numbers don’t tell the whole story, because some states have many times the number of young teen drivers than others.

This is a complicated and heartbreaking problem, with no easy solution immediately in sight. Educating parents about the law would seem to be the low-hanging fruit here. 

If you haven't already seen it, legendary German film director Werner Herzog's short film about the aftermath of texting while driving is very strong medicine. It's disturbing, but inspiring, too. Watch it, and you'll never text and drive again:

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