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Parents Key to Protecting Teen Drivers: Experts

Set limits on kids driving with friends or at night, pediatric group advises

THURSDAY, Dec. 7, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- American parents could be doing more to cut the teen death toll on the country's roads, a new report finds.

In The Teen Driver, a new policy update by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), experts call for parents to serve as driving role models while ensuring that their children get adequate supervised on-the-road training.

Parents who limit or prohibit newly-licensed teens from driving at night or driving unsupervised with adolescent peers are key to saving kids' lives, according to the AAP statement published in the December 2006 issue of Pediatrics.

"The number one issue here is parental involvement," said statement lead author Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, head of general pediatrics at Phoenix Children's Hospital and a member of AAP's Committee on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention.

"We want parents to understand that young novice drivers -- the 16- and 17-year-olds -- have some limitations in their abilities based on their age, so when parents place restrictions on their driving, that keeps them out of dangerous situations," said Weiss.

Summarizing various study conclusions, the AAP report highlights disturbing national statistics.

According to the AAP, auto accidents are now the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 16 and 20, killing 5,500 young people annually. Two-thirds of victims are boys.

As well, while the 12 million adolescent drivers make up just 6 percent of the driving population, they constitute 14 percent of deadly crashes. Accident risk is highest among the youngest of these drivers -- with 16-year-olds being almost 9 times more likely to crash than the general driving public.

Additionally, 450,000 teens are injured each year in car crashes, and 27,000 are hospitalized as a result.

Adolescents, by virtue of their age, are not yet fully capable of spotting hazardous situations or controlling a car, especially when driving fast, the AAP experts noted. They pointed to MRI-based brain research that suggests that poor driving among teens may be linked to a lack of maturity in parts of the brain responsible for planning, impulse control, and decision-making. These areas in the brain's prefrontal cortex are thought to develop fully by the early to mid-20s.

Social pressures add to this dangerous mix, particularly for boys, who often associate fast driving with masculinity, the AAP said.

Teens drivers are also more prone to engage in risk-taking behavior and to overestimate their abilities, the committee said.

The report goes on to highlight the most hazardous teen driving habits.

"The most dangerous way a teenager can get to and from school is by driving in a car with a teenaged driver," the panel noted.

A 16- or 17-year-old has a 40 percent greater risk of crashing when he or she is driving with a peer. That risk doubles when driving with two peers, and quadruples with driving with three or more peers.

Similarly, the panel found that teens who drive at night are asking for trouble. Several states have already set up laws to restrict driving after midnight among teens, but the AAP called this legislation insufficiently protective.

Fatigue, speeding, alcohol use and a lack of experience leave 16- and 17-year-old teens much more likely to crash at night than any other age group, the AAP experts noted. Nearly 60 percent of such fatal nighttime crashes occur in the three hours before midnight.

The report did contain some good news: Americans teens actually drink and drive less frequently than adults. When teens do drink and drive, they still are more likely to crash than adults, however.

Still, prevention efforts are paying off when it comes to drinking and driving among teens. According to the AAP, fatal alcohol-linked car crashes among 16- and 17-year-olds fell by 60 percent between 1982 and 2001.

Teens do practice slightly lower rates of seat belt use compared to adults, and their tendency to drive older, smaller cars elevates their car accident risk. As well, teens are just as susceptible to dangerous distractions such as cell-phone use and eating while driving.

Weiss and his panel lauded recent efforts by states to institute "Graduated Driver Licensing" (GDL). These programs create an intermediate stage between a learner's permit and full licensing, during which a teen must drive infraction-free and prove competency. GDL laws in some states also restrict nighttime driving and peer-passenger driving among adolescents.

But the role of parents in all of this remains key, the AAP said.

The new policy statement directs parents to serve as both model drivers as well as driving instructors and supervisors.

Additionally, parents should play a role in choosing a safe vehicle for their child and in controlling access to that vehicle.

Once a license is obtained, nighttime driving and peer-driving restrictions should be put in place and punishments established for breaking the rules, they suggested.

"It's scary the first time you see your 16-year-old drive off alone," said Weiss. "Believe me. I know. But I also know that a lot of adults have this concept that teen crashes are the result of reckless drunken driving with lots of kids in the car, and that's just not true."

"Many of the fatal crashes are caused by irresponsible driving, but many, many, many more teen crashes occur because the kids just don't have the executive decision-making capacity at that early age," he said. "So, it's not that they're being bad, it's just that they don't have the ability to make certain judgments fast so that they can drive safely. So parents have to step in."

Dr. Karen Sheehan, medical director of the Injury Prevention and Research at Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital, expressed support for the policy recommendations.

"What I like about it is that it's a very practical approach for parents to use to keeping their kids safe," she said Sheehan, who is also medical director for Chicago's Injury-Free Coalition for Kids. "They're not saying 'don't let teens drive.' But they're saying, 'let's help them do it in a safe way.' "

"Parents play a big role in keeping their kids safe," Sheehan added. "And this statement strengthens the notion that parents should be actively involved in the process to do just that."

More information

There's more on safer teen driving at the National Safety Council.

SOURCES: Jeffrey Weiss, M.D., head, general pediatrics, Phoenix Children's Hospital, and member, Committee on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, Elk Grove Village, Ill.; Karen Sheehan, M.D., medical director, Injury Prevention and Research, Children's Memorial Hospital, Chicago, and medical director, Injury Free Coalition for Kids of Chicago; December 2006, Pediatrics.
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