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Inside The Minds of Teen Drivers

Remember how great it felt to be, say, 17, cruising in a car with your buddies on a sunny spring day, the windows rolled down and the radio blasting?

And aren't you sometimes kind of surprised that you lived to tell the tale?

I know I am. And now that my own kids are fast approaching driving age, I'd do anything to keep them from being as blithely clueless as I was about the enormous risks associated with driving -- and about their own limited capacity to manage those risks.

It's hard to get inside a teen's head and figure out what they think about driving (or anything else, for that matter). But in an effort to find ways to better communicate information about the things that make driving so risky for youthful drivers and their passengers, researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance did just that.

In a study published in the May issue of Pediatrics, 5,665 kids in grades 10-12 were asked to rate the riskiness of such behaviors as drinking, having unruly passengers, using cellphones and text messaging, and speeding, all of which we grownups know can pose grave risks to all drivers, including teens. The kids also were asked how often they'd witnessed such behaviors.

While many of the the teen respondents ranked lack of experience as a middling risk factor, they overwhelmingly reported that they'd rarely seen a teen driver who was inexperienced. The researchers note that teens likely equate "experience" with the mere fact of having acquired a license.

According to the teens, talking on a cellphone while driving wasn't all that risky, but text messaging was extremely risky, ranking right up there with racing other cars.

Having adolescent passengers barely registered as risky, but when those passengers start "acting wild," they become very risky indeed.

Nearly all the teens surveyed recognized drinking and driving as a very high-risk proposition, but very few reported having seen anyone drink and drive.

And while 70 percent of the teens said they wore seat belts, seat belt use ranked only at about the middle of the list of factors that make a big difference in driving safety.

Add to this research is the emerging brain imaging science that Laura Sessions Stepp will be writing about in a Health section article tomorrow. Turns out that our brains -- and particularly the parts associated with reasoning -- do not fully mature until we are in our mid-20s, making teenagers more vulnerable to impulsive decision making.

It's springtime once again. Time for teens to drive to the prom, to graduation parties, or just out with their buddies. Maybe now's a good time to ask our kids what they think about risky driving behaviors -- and to try to steer them toward mature ways to handle them.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 5, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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I was not a fun driver for my friends. I always wore a seatbelt and made them do it to. I kicked people out of my car when they got unruly. I wouldn't stop to pick up third parties I didn't know (who might, after all, be holding drugs). I refused to play the music past the point where it distorted. I rarely sped more than 8 miles over the speed limit (the magic number we shared amongst ourselves).

I still got in two solo accidents on ice and got a ticket for making a left turn during rush hour (made the turn every day normally during non-rush hour).

My friends who got too crazy also quit college and hold retail management jobs. My friends who didn't go too crazy went to grad school and live in Potomac.

Posted by: DCer | May 5, 2008 2:23 PM | Report abuse

"Inside the minds of teen drivers" covers several topics that are "Right On!" But what's in the teenager's mind only covers about half of the problem that takes the lives of over 5,000 teens every year. The other half is "What's inside the minds of parents with teen drivers."

A study by Allstate shows that parents are often unaware of the Graduated Driver Licensing laws in their state -- laws parents are responsible for enforcing with their teens. This and other research shows that parents focus on issues like sex, drugs, smoking, alcohol, etc with much greater emphasis than driving safety. There's a summary of the study at

There's a real need to bring parents up to speed on the risk factors surrounding teen driving, on their responsibilities under the GDL laws, and showing them proven ways to minimize the chance of a crash with their son or daughter.

Posted by: Allan | May 5, 2008 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the good comments, DCer and Allan! There are so many facets to this issue...

Posted by: Jennifer Huget | May 5, 2008 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Great information and timing to address this concern!

It is that wonderful time of the year for youth with many special events, dreams for their future plans, celebrations of their accomplishments, and unfortunately dangerous days and nights on the road. National Organizations for Youth Safety (NOYS) is sponsoring May as National Youth Traffic Safety Month and youth all across the country have developed and are implementing youth peer to peer education projects addressing youth traffic safety.

According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over the past decade, seven of the top 10 deadliest days for youth traffic-related deaths historically fall between Memorial Day and Labor Day. According to a survey administered on behalf of NOYS and The Allstate Foundation, teens polled admit they will engage in increased risky behaviors that can result in deadly consequences more often during the summer, further supporting the critical need for increased traffic safety awareness among teen drivers during these months of increased risks.
• Two-thirds of teens (65 percent) will drive more often in the summer.
• Approximately half of teens will have teen passengers present and drive in the dark more frequently.
• Some teens say they will speed (20 percent), talk on a mobile phone (16 percent) or text message while driving (9 percent) more often during the summer.

According to statistics from NHTSA May and July are the two deadliest months for youth on the road. National Youth Traffic Safety Month goals are to empower youth to assert positive peer pressure to save the lives of their friends on the road during prom, graduation, and the summer driving season and continue their efforts throughout the year to make a positive impact. The voice and power of youth working with and for youth traffic safety during these increased dangerous times is very important to addressing this issue and saving lives.

Currently, ten youth led school teams are competing for a grand prize of $10,000 for their youth led traffic safety activism projects. Check out their videos and blogs at Bishop McNamara, a local school from Forestville, MD is in the running - check out their project at Additionally, other youth teams from across the country are competing for one of 50 $1,000 awards for their youth traffic safety efforts. Both of these contests are made possible through generous funding by The Allstate Foundation.

Join NOYS in supporting youth who are working hard to educate their peers about safe driving during National Youth Traffic Safety Month. More information is available at

Posted by: Sandy | May 6, 2008 8:42 PM | Report abuse

When I was a new teen driver, back in the late 60s, in a way I had the opposite problem - I think I was more cautious and nervous about my driving abilities than my parents were - well my father in particular. I had the reputation as the "good" and reliable daughter; my father thought it OK to have me drive my brother around for his early Sunday morning paper route on my learners permit without my dad being there (I took out someone's mailbox, tho nobody ever found out, I swore my brother to secrecy!), and at least once or twice piled the whole large noisy family in the station wagon and had me drive down narrow busy roads that petrified me. Of course, I did Ok and we all lived through it. But I think parents need to realize that even their really reliable, "good" kid is an inexperienced driver and try not to send him or her out on errands for their own convenience, especially if there are small children involved. It is too much responsibility to place on young shoulders.

Posted by: Catherine | May 13, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

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