Traffic crashes kill more teenagers in Wisconsin and the rest of the nation than any other cause of death.
Last year, 53 teenagers were killed and nearly 6,300 were injured in traffic crashes in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
To help prevent deaths and injuries among teenage motorists by encouraging better decision making and safety conscious behavior behind the wheel, Governor Scott Walker has proclaimed the week of Oct. 14-20 as Teen Driver Safety Week in Wisconsin.
Based on miles driven, teen drivers are involved in fatal crashes at four times the rate of most adult drivers. The reasons why teens continue to be killed and injured in traffic crashes at an alarming rate are no mystery.
"Teens are more likely to crash because they are less experienced drivers," says State Patrol Major Sandra Huxtable, director of the WisDOT Bureau of Transportation Safety. "They also tend to speed, drive aggressively, and take other dangerous risks such as texting while driving. Young people also are killed in traffic crashes at far higher rates than other age groups because they are the least likely to buckle up."
Nationally, about half of the teens who die in crashes each year are passengers.
A major focus of National Teen Driver Safety Week is to urge teenage passengers to make sensible decisions such as not riding with inexperienced or impaired drivers, not distracting the driver, and always wearing a safety belt.
Traffic safety officials stress that the risk of a crash increases significantly when teen drivers have multiple teen passengers in their vehicle.
The risk of a fatal crash for a teen driver doubles with just one teen passenger and is four to five times higher with three or more teen passengers, according to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, a sponsor of the National Teen Driver Safety Week.
"Inexperienced teen drivers can be easily distracted by their teen passengers when they make a lot of noise, move around suddenly, or urge the driver to speed or drive recklessly," Major Huxtable says. "To help prevent these dangerous situations, Wisconsin has a graduated driver license requirement for new drivers under age 18 that helps them gain valuable experience behind the wheel while limiting the number of teen passengers in their vehicles."
Any parent knows that total control of a teen's behavior is a pipe dream, but traffic safety experts say there are practical ways to help make your teen's 'ride' considerably safer.
- Don't assume driver education makes a safe, capable driver. Major studies reveal that high school driver education programs show little or no effect in reducing crashes. (In fact, they have an unintended negative effect on teen crash involvement by encouraging early licensing among 16-17 year-olds.) While it's safe to assume that driver education helps with basic driving skills and rules of the road, most are simply too short, offering too little behind-the-wheel hours of experience, to be more than a basic driving primer.
- Combine driver education with a lot of parent-supervised driving practice. Research shows that when parents take an active role in their teen's driving education, their child's chances of being in a crash can be reduced by one-third. So invest the time, and take an active, extended role in helping your teenager learn to drive. And remember, a crucial part of being a 'driving instructor' is setting a good example: Teens with crashes and traffic violations often have parents with bad driving records.
- Know and enforce your state's graduated licensing laws. Most states, including Michigan and Wisconsin, have core requirements such as no night driving after 9-10 p.m., zero alcohol tolerance, and/or rules preventing more than one young passenger with a beginning driver. Educate yourself on your state's rules and enforce them as family rules.
- Restrict or ban night driving/weekend driving. The rate of fatal nighttime vehicle crashes is six times higher for teenage boys and three times higher for teen girls versus their adult (30-59-year-old) counterparts. You should also strongly consider restricting weekend driving, given that more than half of all teen traffic deaths occur on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
- Restrict or ban letting kids drive around with friends. Nearly half of the crash deaths involving 16-year-olds took place when beginners were driving with fellow teen passengers.
- Restrict or ban teen cell phone use while driving. More and more young drivers are using a hand-held cell phones while driving. This is a disturbing trend, given that drivers using phones are four times as likely to get into injury crashes - and the consequences are more extreme for young drivers. Make the message loud and clear: No driving and talking or texting.
- When you choose a car for a teenager, invest in safety features. Roughly 90 percent of parents pass down a family vehicle, or purchase a used vehicle, for their teens. When choosing a vehicle, safety and safety features should be the No. 1 priority.
- Choose a car with a sedate, not-sporty image. Kids obviously prefer cool, sporty cars, but it's been shown that sports cars, muscle cars or vehicles with a high performance image encourage reckless driving and speeding. A basic family sedan, on the other hand, can reduce the chance that your teen will be involved in a crash.
- Draw up and display a teen-parent driver contract. A written pact creates an opportunity for your family to discuss, understand, and sign off on clear, ironclad safety rules with your child, including enforced seat belt use, a zero alcohol tolerance policy, and rules for driving with friends, night driving, speeding, etc.
WisDOT offers a parent and teen driving contract that helps establish rules and consequences for a teen's driving behavior.
The WisDOT parent and teen driving contract is available on the WisDOT web at www.dot.wisconsin.gov/drivers/teens/.
Moreover, parents must set a good example for safe driving behavior by obeying speed limits, buckling up, and eliminating distractions behind the wheel.