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Causes Of Teen Driver Crashes
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Causes Of Teen Driver Crashes

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of why teen drivers crash and this takes the focus off the real causes. Hint – it is NOT speeding as is commonly believed. What prompted me to write about this topic is that a short while ago a local teen died in a collision and the headline read “Speed Suspected In Teen Collision Death”. The propagation of the idea that “speed kills” takes the focus off the true reasons for teen crashes. The goal of this article is to show research on teen crashes in their first year of driving and discuss the real issues underlying the problem.

First off, lets look at what is probably the best research done on the topic, which is named “Young Novice Drivers: Careless or Clueless?” by McKnight & McKnight in 2003. This paper shows the results of the only research I know of that truly gets “under the hood” of teen crashes with the goal of understanding what really happened. They researched over 1,000 teen crashes, made a detailed analysis of each crash, and correlated the data into something that can be easily understood by everyone.

Given the headlines that we see every day, the research is eye opening. Virtually all headlines throw in the “speeding card” with a little “driving while under the influence”. Unfortunately, these are very seldom the true causes of the crash. As can be seen, speeding, defined as driving faster than the posted speed limit, was cited as a factor in only 1.3% of crashes. Let's think about this for a moment – if you read the headlines you would think it is responsible for 100% of crashes.

So, lets consider why speeding is so often cited in teen crashes:

1) Traffic citations have a set of checkboxes for the reasons behind a crash and speeding is a prominent selection. Given the time constraints of most police officers' workday, its quick to make an easy choice and check the box. A painstaking examination of a crash, similar to what was done in the McKnight research, could take a great deal of time.

2) Speeding is easy to understand and target. Vehicle speed can be measured before and after a collision by using skid marks, distance a vehicle travelled, etc. Once the speed is determined it can be compared to the posted speed limit quite easily. Anything over the speed limit and aha, we have another headline which unfortunately probably has nothing to do with the cause of the crash.

3) The true causes of the crash can be very difficult to discern and in some cases impossible to determine. For instance, the case where the driver was not scanning the road properly for dangerous situations could only be determined by having some form of eye tracker monitoring the situation. How can we tell if the driver was drowsy? Many distractions, such as reaching for a moving object, can not be found after the fact.

Now that we can see how difficult it is to figure out the true causes of crashes we need to turn to the research. This research is done by highly educated professionals whose job is to perform this type of research, determine what truly happened, and create a statistical understanding of the information that everyone can understand. The contributing factors can be seen in the excerpt from the McKnight research paper that summarizes their findings in an easy to digest table.

Given the great research done by McKnight & McKnight, lets consider the true causes of teen crashes. You will need to keep an open mind, given the sensationalist headlines, and try to understand the outcome of this incredible piece of research.

The key critical contributors for teen crashes are :

1) “Attention”, which is what the driver was focusing on at the time of the crash and was found to contribute to 23% of teen crashes. Several items fit into this category, such as attention management, avoiding distractions, etc.

2) “Search”, describes how the driver was using their vision to find dangerous driving situations. This item was cited as a contributor in 19.1% of teen crashes.

3) “Speed Adjustment” is another major contributor and cited in 20.8% of teen crashes. Please take note that this has nothing to do with speeding, which is driving faster than the posted speed limit. Speed adjustment pertains to changing the speed of the vehicle for upcoming road conditions. These include items such as sharp curves, slick surfaces, traffic conditions, road conditions, etc.

4) “Maintaining Space” is a factor in 9.8% of teen crashes and contains items like following too closely, side clearance, etc.

Together, these four items are cited as contributors in the vast majority of teen crashes. And this research should be included as part of both in-class and online drivers ed programs. Given the information it becomes obvious where we should place the emphasis for having a positive impact on saving teen lives. Of particular note is that speeding was cited in only 1.3% of these crashes. Is this what you expected? It certainly wasn't given the headlines that I have been reading!

I have read many research papers and have been involved in drivers ed for a number of years now. During that time we have trained tens of thousands of teens to drive and my observation is that the areas in McKnight are spot on. It is easy to watch new drivers and they clearly have troubles in the major areas pointed out above. If we can maintain a focus on these items in our drivers ed programs, this awareness can go a long ways to helping train safe novice drivers.

If we're going to decrease the number of teen crashes, we need to start with the understanding of why they are crashing. And to do that we need to turn to the research and not the sound bites we hear on news programs. Misunderstood sound bites, such as “Speed Kills”, contribute to the problem and everyone should be made aware of the true causes of teen crashes. And for teens that have just received their drivers permit, it is critical that they understand the potential dangerous issues on the road to becoming an experienced driver.


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