Auto accidents kill more U.S. teenagers than any other cause, and summer is known as the "100 deadliest days for teen drivers," according to the National Safety Council (NSC).
The main culprit for the fatalities is not texting and driving. It’s an older problem: Not wearing seatbelts.
More than half of the 2,439 teens killed in auto accidents in 2012 were not wearing seatbelts, according to a new report called “Teens in Cars” compiled by Safe Kids Worldwide, a global organization dedicated to preventing injuries in children.
The results match similar findings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Safety Council.
The General Motors-sponsored report surveyed 1,000 teens aged 13 to 19 to explore why teens aren’t wearing seatbelts and to “understand their perceptions about their own safety when riding as passengers.”
Passengers accounted for 44 percent of the fatalities. One in four teens said they don’t wear seatbelts when driving with a teen, and the number one reason was they forgot, or it’s not habit.
“Teens have an invincibility complex as not part of a fully developed brain,” says Kathy Bernstein, Senior Director of Teen Driving Initiative for the National Safety Council (NSC). The latest scientific thought suggests the brain isn’t fully developed until 25 years old.
Wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of death for front seat passengers by 45 percent, according to the “Teens in Cars” study. And while the number of teen traffic fatalities has dropped 56 percent from a peak of 5,491 in 2002, the percentage of fatalities from not wearing seatbelts has remained the same.
Seat belt laws vary by states, which began enacting belt laws in the late 80s and early 90s. There are 33 states with primary laws, meaning a law enforcement official can stop a motorist and issue a ticket for not wearing a seat belt; 16 states have secondary laws, meaning a law enforcement official can only issue a ticket for a seat-belt violation if there is another violation. New Hampshire is the only state without seat belt laws for adults, though there is a provision covering all drivers and passengers under 18, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association.
Seat belt laws can’t protect teens from themselves, however. “They’re risk takers by nature,” says Bernstein.
The same may apply to their parents. Teens who don’t use seat belts are more likely to say their parents don’t use a seat belt every time they drive, according to the report.
Additionally, teens who don’t use seats belts are more likely to text while driving than those who do, the “Teens in Cars” study found. When someone was driving dangerously, 4 in 10 teens say they asked the driver to stop. Almost the same number said they did nothing.
Teen-to-teen positive peer pressure is effective in curbing dangerous driving habits. It can be equally effective between parents and teens.
“If you get in my car and don’t put on your belt, we’re not going anywhere,” Bernstein says.
More than half of the teens surveyed said they have seen a parent talking on the phone while driving, and 28 percent admitted to riding in a car with a parent who was texting.
“The minute [kids] get in the car, they’re watching the parent,” says Bernstein.
While there were no hard numbers on the effect on texting or distracted driving on fatalities, one study analyzed by the “Teens in Cars” report found that the odds of a crash or near-crash in newly licensed drivers was more than eight times greater when dialing a cell phone.
The main cause of teen auto accidents, however, is inexperience, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and other safety agencies.
This inexperience is something Bruce Murakami knows firsthand. He lost his wife and 17-year-old daughter to a 19-year-old who was street racing.
He launched Safe Teen Driver and developed a driving program known as TRACK (Teaching Road Awareness and Consequences to Kids), where teens negotiate closed courses on golf carts crowded with three other teens, then press their speed on a go-kart track under video survellience that helps instructors work one-on-one with teen drivers.
It’s eye-opening for teens, but perhaps not as shocking to see Murakami share the stage with the man responsible for the accident. As part of the plea, Justin Cabezas agreed to join Murakami to teach young drivers about responsible behavior behind the wheel of a car and to take responsibility for their actions.
“It’s surreal,” Murakami says. Even though Cabezas satisfied his sentence of 3,000 hours of speaking in 2005, he and Murakami have continued to tour, reaching over half a million teens since 2003.
“I remember what I did and the dumb things my boys did,” Murakami says from his home in St. Petersburg, Fla. “I want to see lives saved. I want to educate kids and parents as best as possible.”
Even though Murakami and the NSC advocate Graduated Driver License (GDL) programs that limit riders and prescribe an extended period of supervision, parents hold the key to their kids’ safe driving future.
In a survey by the All State Foundation, 80 percent of teens said parents have the greatest influence over a teen’s driving habits.
“Look at how much time parents put into sports and studies,” Murakami asks. “But do they put that amount of time in their kid driving?”
“Parents have to be actively involved with their teen driver,” says Bernstein of the NSC, which says the most dangerous time of a teen’s life is on the road. “Put your seatbelt on and put the phone away and be constantly talking about it to your teen, preteen and child.”
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