Washington —The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a top safety advocate say teen driver education needs to improve and parents need to take an active role in monitoring new drivers’ habits behind the wheel.
NHTSA, the U.S. auto safety agency, on Tuesday unveiled a new campaign that challenges parents to discuss five critical driving practices with their teen-age drivers that can have the greatest beneficial impacts in the event of a crash.
The five key practices are: No cellphone use or texting while driving; no extra passengers; no speeding; no alcohol; and no driving or riding without a seat belt.
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for those 14-18 years old in the United States. In 2011, 942 teens died in the crashes, NHTSA said.
Strickland said many states have seen a “degradation” in driver’s education. In prior decades, nearly all states offered free driver education that was taught by a high school teacher. Today, most states require teens to pay for private lessons that can be expensive, Strickland noted.
NHTSA notes that in 2011, over half of the teen occupants of passenger vehicles who died in crashes were not wearing seat belts.
NHTSA said speeding was a factor in 35 percent of fatal crashes involving a teen driver, while 12 percent of teen drivers involved in fatal crashes were distracted at the time. In 2011, 505 people nationwide died in crashes in which drivers between 14 and 18 years old had alcohol in their systems, despite the fact that all states have zero tolerance laws for drinking and driving under age 21.
“Inexperience and immaturity, combined with speed, drinking and driving, not wearing seat belts, distracted driving, and other teen passengers contribute to the high fatality rate of teens involved in fatal crashes,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.
Flaura Winston, who is scientific director at the Center for Child Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadephia, said parents need to take an active role in training their kids how to drive — and to continue the process after they start driving. She noted that if a teen learns to drive in the summer, they probably don’t have any experience driving in icy conditions.
“Parents should tell the teen what they are doing and set a great example,” she said, saying parents need to carefully monitor teen driving habits after they start driving. “We do need better driver training.”
Strickland said teens are smart, but don’t always have the skills. “Teens are very good at learning to the test, the road course, and then without the proper follow-up, they engage in dangerous behavior over the long term,” he said.
In 2011, Michigan toughened its rules on new drivers. It moved the state’s restricted hours on teen drivers to 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., unless traveling for work. The previous curfew was midnight.
Michigan now limits teen drivers to one non-family passenger age 20 or younger unless for some school activities. In January, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a new law banning novice teenage drivers from talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving in Michigan.