Teen driving deaths fell to a new low last year in New Jersey after spiking in 2011. That’s great news when you consider that car crashes are the number one killer of teens 16-20 years of age.
According to data obtained from the New Jersey State Police Fatal Accident (FARS) Reporting Unit, 20 teen drivers and 12 teen passengers (driven by their peers) died in motor vehicle crashes in 2012. Those numbers are down 37.5 and 33 percent, respectively, over 2011. But what’s even more heartening is that teen driver and passenger deaths fell 65 and 64 percent, respectively, when compared to 2007. In that year, more teen drivers and their passengers died on our roadways than during any other 12-month period in the past decade.
The FARS data also reveals that fatalities involving a teen driver fell from 89 in 2011 to 58 last year, a 35 percent drop. While teen drivers and their passenger accounted for nearly 52 percent of those deaths, the remaining 48 percent weren’t teens. In fact, over the past decade of the 880 people who died in teen driver-related crashes in New Jersey, 47 percent weren’t novice drivers or their friends. Twenty-seven ranged in age from under one year to 15, while the remaining 389 were adults.
Teens, unlike their adult counterparts, are four times more likely to crash. While parents often point to alcohol, texting and/or speeding as the root cause of the problem, teen crash risk is impacted by developmental and behavioral issues coupled with inexperience. And the latter is what we should be focusing on. While there’s no doubt that many teens crash because of risk taking, most crashes occur because the novice behind the wheel doesn’t have the skills or experience needed to recognize a hazard and take corrective action. Researchers point to driver error as the most prevalent reason for teen crashes, with recognition (e.g. inadequate scanning, distraction) and decision errors (e.g., following too closely, driving too fast for conditions) topping the list.
No matter how intelligent, level-headed, respectful or talented your teen may be, when it comes to driving the playing field is level. To gain skill a teen must drive and drive a lot -- 1,000 to 1,500 miles, say the researchers -- in a variety of conditions and on all types of roadways to significantly reduce their crash risk. Simply put there’s no substitute for practice.
And that brings me to one other key finding in the FARS data. Of the teen drivers involved in fatal crashes last year, 80 percent were between 18 and 20 years of age. Thirteen were 18 years of age, 7 were 19 and 24 were 20. What’s the takeaway here? Time is important. In the case of driving, it can literally take three to five years for novices to be exposed to the myriad of driving situations they’ll encounter on the road. Building the muscle-memory needed to help a driver react quickly and appropriately in a variety of situations takes time.
For this reason, it’s up to parents to stay involved with their teen drivers even after they’re fully licensed. I urge parents to seek out opportunities to continue to drive with their teens whenever possible. At the very least, remind them to be careful and keep reinforcing key safe driving practices such as always buckling up, easing up on the gas, refraining from texting, and not drinking and driving. Contrary, to what you may think, parents are the chief influencer and teens are listening.
Perhaps Tim Hollister, a teen safe driving advocate and blogger who lost his teenage son in a car crash in 2006, puts it best. “A license doesn’t a safe or experienced teen driver make. It’s up to parents to be an extra filter in the process. “