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Local Expert Reflects On ‘100 Deadliest Days’ For Teen Drivers



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A Newtown police commissioner and traffic safety scientist is joining AAA Northeast and the organization’s Foundation for Traffic Safety calling for heightened parental and adult guidance — as well as setting a good example behind the wheel — to help reduce a spike in teen related traffic fatalities as the most dangerous few months of the year for teen drivers has arrived.

Even as activities and school events remained limited, and traffic on Connecticut’s roads was significantly reduced, the period between Memorial and Labor Day 2020 was the deadliest for the youngest teen drivers in Connecticut since 2008. Last summer, state families suffered nine fatal crashes involving 16- and 17-year-olds.

According to Police Commission member Neil Chaudhary, PhD, the simple adherence to the common sense practice of buckling up could have saved a number of those young lives.

“For the nation 47% of fatally injured occupants in 2019 ages 16-20 were [reportedly] restrained,” said Chaudhary, CEO of the nationally recognized traffic safety organization the Preusser Research Group. “In Connecticut, only four — or 19% of the 21 fatally injured 16-20 year-old vehicle occupants — were restrained.”

Nationwide, more than 7,000 people died in teen driving-related summertime crashes between 2010 and 2019 — more than seven people each day during these “100 Deadliest Days,” or the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day. That represents one added death every day above the balance of the year (six per day).

Research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows new teen drivers ages 16 to 17 are three times as likely as adults to be involved in a deadly crash.

“There are more daily deaths in crashes involving teen drivers during the summer months than the rest of the year because teens tend to have more unstructured time behind the wheel,” said Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “So what can be done? We can encourage teens to double down on staying focused when driving, buckling up for every ride, and driving within posted speed limits.”

Dr Chaudhary said the latest data from the national Governors Highway Safety Association pointed to 2020 as the deadliest on the roadways nationwide in 13 years.

“In Connecticut, it’s the highest since 2016,” he said. “I just gave a presentation on the impact of the pandemic on serious injury and fatal crashes in Connecticut, and there weren’t enough data to determine how those crashes broke down by age group. But I know that the first half of 2020, one study in another state did show teens crashing more during the pandemic.”

Dangerous 'Cruising'

Chaudhary agrees that the likelihood of a young and inexperienced driver crashing not only increases when “cruising,” versus traveling from home to a known destination, but the addition of one or more peers in the vehicle — or even a teen or 20-something sibling — is a multiplier.

“When they are just out cruising, there’s more likelihood they will be doing so with other teenagers, perhaps in violation of Connecticut’s graduated driver’s licensing laws,” Chaudhary said. And while the law creates a provision for older siblings to be in a vehicle with the youngest of teen drivers, it does not give the local traffic safety expert a high degree of confidence that their presence is necessarily a factor in preventing crashes.

“I understand it from a practical perspective, but there is no evidence that says teens are safer when they have a sibling in the car. Teens crash more when other teens are in the car, sibling or not,” Chaudhary said, adding that he conducted a number of those studies himself. “So it is the parents’ [or guardian’s] responsibility to enforce. The graduated license laws are there to give teens the opportunity to drive and gain experience in the safest environment.”

As teens take to the road this summer, AAA and its Northeast offices serving Connecticut recommend parents model safe driving behaviors and help ensure their teens practice them, too.

“Last year’s statistics were quite troubling,” said Fran Mayko, AAA Northeast spokeswoman. “We can encourage teens to stay focused when driving; we can urge them to buckle up for every ride and drive within posted speed limits. But actions speak louder than words, so parents are urged to model good behavior behind the wheel. Your teen won’t take your advice seriously if you don’t follow it yourself.”

With pandemic restrictions easing, it’s also a good time for parents to consider having their teens complete a comprehensive driver education course as well as focus on the dangers of three factors that commonly result in deadly crashes for teen drivers:

Distraction — Distraction plays a role in nearly six out of ten teen crashes, four times as many as official estimates based on police reports. The top distractions for teens include talking to other passengers in the vehicle and interacting with a smartphone.

Not Buckling Up — In research published in 2015, 60% of teen drivers killed in a crash were not wearing a safety belt. Teens who buckle up significantly reduce their risk of dying or being seriously injured in a crash. And according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of the 22,215 passenger vehicle occupants killed in 2019 across the nation, 47% were not wearing seat belts.

Speeding — Speeding is a factor in nearly 30% of fatal crashes involving teen drivers. A previous AAA survey of driving instructors found that speeding is one of the top three mistakes teens make as they are learning to drive.

“The last decade of crash data show shows that teens continue to be over-represented in crashes, and summertime marks an increase of fatal crashes for this age group,” said Dr David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Our data analysis has found that for every mile driven, new teen drivers ages 16-17 years old are three times more likely to be involved in a deadly crash compared to adults.”

Risky Behavior Stats

Due to their inexperience, teen drivers are at a higher risk of crashes. According to the latest AAA Foundation Traffic Safety culture index, about 72% of teen drivers ages 16 to 18 admitted to having engaged in at least one of the following risky behaviors in the past 30 days:

*Driving 10 mph over the speed limit on a residential street (47%);

*Driving 15 mph over the speed limit on a freeway (40%);

*Texting (35%);

*Red-light running (32%);

*Aggressive driving (31%);

*Drowsy driving (25%); and

*Driving without a seat belt (17%).

Returning to the subject of seat belts — and the significant disparity between the AAA and state data on buckling up — Chaudhary says the youngest teens tend to do it more.

“But once those drivers turn 18, they stop using the belts,” he said. “I have no idea why — some striving for control, overconfidence, I don’t know why it happens, but the 18- to 34-year-olds take their seat belts off.”

To support parents in conducting practice driving sessions, AAA provides a free, four-page guide to help parents coach their teens on driving safely.

“Coaching Your New Driver – An In-Car Guide for Parents” offers behind-the-wheel lesson plans, including various do’s and don’ts to make the learning experience as helpful as possible. The guide can be beneficial for parents as they coach their teens on multiple routes, building on their formal behind-the-wheel training.

A variety of tools at teendriving.aaa.com can help prepare parents and teens for the dangerous summer driving season as well.

The online AAA StartSmart Parent Session also offers excellent resources for parents on how to become effective in-car coaches, as well as advice on how to manage their teen’s overall driving privileges. Teens preparing for the responsibility of driving should enroll in a driver education program that teaches how to avoid driver distraction and other safety skills.

Parents should check out the AAA Northeast Facebook page for daily tips, videos, and other resources from traffic safety experts and driving instructors to learn how to become effective in-car coaches for their teen drivers, Mayko said. Another new resource is the aaa.com/deadliestdays website.

Established in 1947 by AAA, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety is a not-for-profit, publicly funded 501(c)(3) charitable research and educational organization.

The AAA Foundation’s mission is to prevent traffic deaths and injuries by researching their causes and giving the public strategies to prevent crashes and reduce injuries when they do occur. This research is used to develop educational materials for drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and other road users.

Reach Associate Editor John Voket at john@thebee.com.

AAA Northeast reports that the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day 2020 was the deadliest for young teen drivers in Connecticut since 2008. Last summer, state families suffered nine fatal crashes involving 16- and 17-year-olds. AAA recommends good parent/adult modeling to influence the behavior of teen drivers. —photo courtesy AAA Northeast
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