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How Can We Save Teens From Themselves When Behind The Wheel?

By Angela Mattke

In January of this year, I got the dreaded text from my teenage son that he had wrecked my 12 year-old Jeep Liberty when he slid on ice into a fence during one of our infamous Atlanta ice storms. He was fine but the car was a goner. I now have another teenager in the pipeline to driving, and I find myself echoing comedian Bill Engvall’s wish that there were a special lane on the road just for teens that was lined with old tires and mattresses until they become more skilled drivers.

Teens account for more than their share of accidents per driving year. They represent a relatively small percentage of drivers, but account for almost one third of driving injuries (1). Males account for twice the rate of females in motor vehicle deaths among 16-19 year olds. This is particularly true when the drivers are newly licensed, and go up with the number of teen passengers in the car (2).

Practice really does make a difference, and driving is no exception. Teens lack the experience of older drivers, and may not recognize danger until a crash is unavoidable. They may overestimate their ability to react and not allow enough space between vehicles, or may drive at excessive speeds which also decrease reaction times. They use seat belts at lower rates than other groups and are more likely to crash if drinking alcohol. (3)

How can we save teens from themselves? Reinforce the importance of seat belt use. Model the behavior you want them to emulate, and enforce DUI for teens. Help them to recognize potentially dangerous situations and remind them that others on the road need to be able to predict their behavior. Darting in and out of traffic is dangerous, so use blinkers to help others anticipate behavior. Maintain constant speed when possible, and remind them that larger vehicles need longer lead times to stop, so darting in front of them increases the risk of accident. Anticipate potential dangers, including slowing down before the crest of a hill, slowing down around driveways, and have a plan for escape if danger does present itself so those few seconds of reaction time may be used to best advantage. Make sure teens are rested prior to driving, and practice nighttime driving with them to get them the experience to help prevent accident. Remind them of the dangers of distracted driving, and have them put away the cell phones.

Until we have a dedicated padded lane, we have to be the buffer to help protect our teens. Let’s all be careful out there!

About the Author: Dr. Angela Mattke is an emergency physician in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a fellow of the American College of Emergency Physicians and an active member of the organization’s Public Relations Committee.