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Dad, If I Talked Like That, You'd Smack Me

Teen driver survey finds both parents and peers bad role models

FRIDAY, April 5, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- A large majority of Southern California teenagers report that they've been exposed to risky and aggressive driving, and a significant number of them say some of the biggest offenders were not only their friends but also their folks.

A new survey of 442 teen drivers found that 40 percent had watched their parents cursing at other motorists, while one-in-five saw mom or dad make obscene gestures at others on the road.

"The teen-agers mentioned they were strongly influenced by their parents' driving, especially by their dads," said study author Sheila Sarkar, director of the California Institute of Transportation Safety at San Diego State University.

From 2000-2001, Sarkar and colleagues gave written surveys to 15- and 16-year-olds in high-school driving classes and driving schools. Most of the teens were from San Diego County, but some lived in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Sarkar's findings are not yet published, but she has released them to the media.

"I was amazed at the responses," she said.

More than 25 percent of the teens said they had been exposed to drunken driving. Most commonly, females were passengers in cars with drunken males, Sarkar said.

Meanwhile, in what Sarkar called the most surprising finding, 36 percent of the 16-year-old males had been exposed to drag racing.

Exposure to reckless driving was most common, especially among females (64 percent). Among males, the rate was 50 percent.

Sarkar had expected that exposure to risky driving would be low among 15- and 16-year olds. "I thought it was an issue for 17- and 18-year olds, that they would be more exposed by hanging out with friends like that," she said.

Students who took part in activities like computer work, TV-watching, video games, and reading were the least likely to have been exposed to risky driving; their levels of exposure were 47-50 percent. But those who worked, enjoyed hanging out with friends or shopping, and took part in art activities were more likely to be exposed.

Meanwhile, the students who took part in contact sports (like football) and "extreme" sports were much more likely to have been exposed to risky driving. Those teens are "sensation seeking" -- looking for high-risk activity, Sarkar said.

Even high-achieving high school students can fall into the trap of careless driving, said Jean Shope, senior research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

"Certainly kids may get into an accident [even if] their schoolteachers and families may never expect them to be in trouble," she said.

Maturity seems to factor into teen driving risks, as do distractions. Teens get into more accidents than adults who are learning how to drive for the first time, she said. And of all age groups, only teen-agers get into more accidents when they have passengers on board. Studies have shown that the biggest risk factor for teen drivers is having other passengers.

"Maybe they're egged on, or they may be distracted," she said. "There may be conversations, maybe the radio is louder. They're obviously not handling the driving situation as well when there are others in the car as when they're alone."

Both Sarkar and Shope agree that parents influence their children's driving habits. There is "at least some evidence that parents serve as role models [for driving] from very early in the child's development," Shope said. "They're sitting in the back seat absorbing."

Parents need to monitor their children as they learn to drive, she said.

"They're in a good position to have expectations about behavior. A lot more can be done than some parents realize."

What To Do: For more information about teen driving safety, visit the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has information about teen driving safety initiatives.

SOURCES: Sheila Sarkar, Ph.D. director, California Institute of Transportation Safety, San Diego State University, San Diego; Jean Shope, Ph.D., senior research scientist, University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Ann Arbor
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