Keeping Teens Safe Behind the Wheel

Flaura K. Winston, MD, PhD


October 10, 2011

Editorial Collaboration

Medscape &

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I'm Dr. Flaura K. Winston. I am a biomechanical engineer, a general pediatrician, and I co-direct the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. I am here today to talk about the number 1 cause of death in teens and that is teen driving.

It is the most-dangerous task of adolescence. In fact 1 in 3 deaths in 14- to 17-year-olds is due to motor vehicle crashes. Most pediatricians recognize the dangers of teen driving and a new survey of US pediatricians confirmed that 89% of pediatricians counsel about teen driver safety. The vast majority of pediatricians discuss seat belts and alcohol use, both very important topics.

The families need to also hear from us that the leading causes of teen crashes are, in fact, inexperience and distraction. Families think that teens crash because they are driving aggressively and recklessly. While these types of crashes do occur and are tragic, the vast majority of crashes occur because teens haven't developed certain crucial driving skills, not because they are behaving badly.

Pediatric and family providers can play an important role in expanding the family's focus to include some of the more common but often overlooked errors associated with teen crashes. We analyzed a nationally representative sample of about 800 crashes involving teens to determine why they crashed. We found that half of all serious crashes occur because a teen driver either failed to properly detect and react to a hazard, they were driving too fast for the road conditions, or they were distracted.

Families play a critical role in keeping their kids safe on the road. The study points to specific skills the parent can work on while they are practicing driving in that learning-to-drive process.

First, make sure you council parents with teen drivers to help their teens to learn how to scan constantly, taking in the environment outside the car far ahead and to the right and the left in the mirrors, not just immediately over their hood. Scanning has become automatic for many adults, but parents can step back and break down how they actually scan to give their teen's specific examples to learn from.

Second, parents can reinforce strategies to avoid distractions including having teens turn off their cell phones before putting the car in drive and restricting the number of peer passengers during the first year or 1000 miles of independent driving.

Finally, they should discuss and demonstrate speed management. Teens need to drive at the right speed for the road conditions. The speed limit is a guide but they also need to slow down on icy and slippery roads.

We have developed a Website with evidence-based ways to keep teen drivers safe. The Website has specific portals for teens and for parents written in their language. When your teens are in the waiting room or in your family room waiting for you, open on your computer so they can review it while they wait.

Thank you for listening and helping us save teens lives. For more safety tips follow me on Twitter.


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