The prom season approaches. High-school students get excited; parents get fearful. The issue of drinking and driving becomes the topic of discussion among parents and teens. It’s a scenario that plays out every year. It should. The subject is that important.
Despite progress with teen drinking and driving — the percentage of high-school teens who drink and drive has decreased by more than half since 1991 — motor-vehicle crashes are still the leading cause of death for teens in the U.S. In fact, they are the leading cause of death for young Americans age 5 to 24, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
If we dig deeper into the statistics, however, the picture gets even worse. The risk of motor-vehicle crashes is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than for any other age group. Research further shows that teens don’t use seatbelts enough, are more likely to speed, and are more likely to underestimate dangerous situations. Such conditions can — and too often do — lead to tragedy.
Here are a few more statistics to consider. Approximately 2,100 teens age 16-19 die, and 243,000 are treated in emergency departments for injuries, from motor-vehicle crashes every year. That means six teens die from motor vehicle injuries every day.
Alcohol, of course, is now just one part of the problem. Today’s technology, while certainly making cars safer in many ways, has also increased the risks of driving, with teens talking and texting on cell phones.
Parents have a critical part to play in reducing the risks of motor-vehicle crashes by teen drivers. The CDC campaign “Parents are the Key to Safe Teen Drivers” is designed to help keep teens driver safe, and the information is something every parent should learn. The CDC identifies eight ‘danger zones’ that raise the risk of crashes by teen drivers and offers suggestions about what parents can do to lower the risk.
1. Driver inexperience. Crash risk is highest in the first year of having a license. Parents can provide supervised practice over several months, on a variety of roads, at different times of day, and in different weather conditions.
2. Driving with teen passengers. This also raises the risk of a crash. Limit the number of passengers your teen can have in the car for at least six months.
3. Driving at night. Fatal crashes are more likely at night for all ages, but particularly for teenagers. Practice nighttime driving with your teen.
4. Not using seatbelts. Teens have the lowest rate of seatbelt use compared to other groups. Seatbelt use is a proven way to prevent deaths from car crashes, so require your teen to wear the belt on every trip.
5. Distracted driving. Operating a motor vehicle requires paying strict attention to driving as well as to other drivers around you and being ready to react quickly to fast-changing conditions. Talking on a cell phone, texting, eating, or playing with the radio significantly raises the risk of crashes.
6. Drowsy driving. Research shows that most teens don’t get enough sleep. Make sure your son or daughter is well-rested before driving, especially at night.
7. Reckless driving. Most teenagers lack the experience, judgment, and maturity to assess situations and may take risks behind the wheel.
8. Impaired driving. Even one alcoholic drink can impair a teenager’s ability to drive, raising the risk of a crash. Remember the purpose and value of a designated driver.
The risk of a crash, of course, increases significantly when the above dangers occur in combination. Talking with your teen about the above hazards, practice driving under controlled conditions, and being a role model are important steps to help your teen make smart decisions about driving.
Here’s one more recommended step: create a parent-teen driving agreement. This puts parental rules in writing and sets expectations and limits on your teen as a motor-vehicle operator. It can be updated periodically, as your teen gains experience behind the wheel.
For more information, and a model parent-teen driving agreement, visit the CDC at www.cdc.gov/parentsarethekey.
Dr. Michael Guidi is a board-certified family physician practicing in Haverhill, and chair of the Mass. Medical Society’s committee on student health and sports medicine. This article is a public service of the Mass. Medical Society.