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Thursday, February 01, 2007

New Study Cites Distractions That Cause Teen Driving Deaths

Traffic Accidents Are the Number-One Killer of U.S. Teens

Good news: more teenagers are paying attention to warnings about drinking and driving.
Bad news: according to a recently-released study, they face everyday driving distractions, ranging from cell phone calls to fellow teen passengers, that play a role in thousands of fatal crashes every year.

Dr. Flaura Winston, chief investigator for the study, said that teens often take the wheel amid commotion, angst or fatigue that would be challenging even for older drivers.

Dr. Winston, a pediatrician with the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said, "We need to go beyond the message of drinking and driving and also talk about the message of distractions."

The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the nation's largest auto insurer, State Farm Insurance Company, conducted the 2006 study.

Researchers say traffic accidents are the number-one cause of teen fatalities in the U.S., with a casualty rate that is four times higher than drivers aged 25 to 69. Approximately 5,600 teens died in traffic accidents in 2005, and about 7,500 were driving cars involved in fatal accidents.

According to researchers, the risk of a fatal crash is doubled when a teenage driver has a teenage passenger in his or her vehicle. The risk is five times higher when two or more teens are present within the vehicle. Most states have graduated licensing laws restricting passengers when a teenager is behind the wheel, but 15 states do not.

More than 5,600 high school students, representing the 10.6 million students in public high schools across the U.S., were asked what are the factors involved that create unsafe driving conditions when their peers drive that creates unsafe driving conditions.

Reflecting a trend that has seen teen traffic deaths involving alcohol drop by 35 percent in the past decade and a half, 90 percent of teens surveyed said they rarely or never drive after drinking or using drugs.

However teens reported a plethora of other in-vehicle distractions, such as seeing peers drive while talking on cell phones. Over 50 percent of those surveyed reported seeing drivers using hand-held games, listening devices or sending text messages.

Approximately 75 percent told of teens driving while fatigued, or being distracted by emotional turmoil, such as worries about grades or relationships. More than 9 out of 10 teens also reported seeing teen drivers speeding, and 50 percent said they often drive at least 10 mph over posted speed limits themselves.

"The environment for a teen driver is much more challenging and demanding than most of us adults thought," said Laurette Stiles, vice president of strategic resources at Bloomington-based State Farm. "They're trying to manage all of that while trying to navigate the vehicle at the same time and they're pretty inexperienced at that."

According to researchers, the study will be used to call for stricter requirements for graduated drivers licenses, including authorized driving with parental supervision, night driving curfews, and passenger restrictions.

Dr. Winston, founder of the children's hospital's Center for Injury Research and Prevention, said that the study's conclusions would be shared with schools and parents, to warn teens about the potential hazards of driving.

The National Safety Commission recommends The Driver Education Handbook for Parents as a valuable teaching tool for parents who are concerned with their teen's driving safety and understand the value of quality instruction.

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