June is National Safety Month, with each week dedicated to a different aspect of safety both inside and outside the home.  The week of June 12 through the 18th focuses on safe driving for teenagers.  Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for teens in the United States, accounting for more than one in three deaths in this age group.  The majority of these accidents occur within the first year after the driver is issued a license.

There are a number of reasons as to why teenagers are more likely to be involved in fatal car accidents than drivers in other age groups.  Teenagers are less likely to wear seat belts, either as a driver or a passenger, and also tend to speed, allowing less room when passing other drivers on the road.  As new drivers, teenagers often underestimate dangerous driving situations, particularly teenage boys, who may try to impress their friends by driving recklessly.  They are also more easily distracted, either by texting or talking on cell phones, which is now illegal in many states, or by other passengers in their vehicle.  Finally, alcohol plays a huge part– over 25% of drivers aged 15 to 20 killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2008 had a BAC (blood alcohol count) of .08 or higher.  Nearly a third of teenagers polled in 2007 admitted to being a passenger in a vehicle when the driver had been drinking.

As most teenagers take a carefree “that won’t happen to me” approach to dangerous situations (we were all there once!), educational programs about the hazards of drunk driving, speeding and not wearing a seat belt are often ineffective.  However, one program that does seem to be working is graduated driver licensing, in which new drivers must go through three stages of licensing.  First, they’re issued a learner’s permit, for use while being taught how to drive.  Next is the provisional license, which restricts unsupervised driving and driving at night.  Only after proficiency in driving and understanding of motor vehicle laws and regulations has been demonstrated will a standard driver’s license be issued.  The process may take longer than a teenager would prefer, but it works:  research suggests that graduated driver licensing programs are associated with a nearly 40% reduction in serious car accidents involving 16 year-old drivers.

Though graduated driver licensing laws vary from state to state, it’s recommended that all new drivers (not just teenagers!) take their time easing into the responsibility of having a driver’s license.  It may be a rite of passage for most young people, not to mention a benefit to the household to have one more person available to drive, but not at the risk of injury or death on the road.

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