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Will a New Government Campaign for Safer Teen Driving Backfire?

11:15 AM EDT on October 25, 2013

U.S. DOT’s new campaign urging parents to set five safety rules before giving their kids the car keys is this close to being a really good idea.

As DOT notes, motor vehicle crashes are the number one killer of 14 to 18-year-olds. In 2011, more than 2,300 people were killed in crashes involving a teen driver -- more than six deaths each day. And DOT believe they’re 100 percent preventable.

It makes sense to set out to reduce the risks associated with the least experienced drivers on the road. And it's smart to aim the campaign at parents, possibly a more receptive audience than the teens themselves. The accompanying video portrays these five rules as a simple, common-sense way people can keep their kids safe without being hyper-paranoid helicopter parents.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland announced the campaign on the Fast Lane blog yesterday:

“5 to Drive” is all about getting parents and guardians to engage in an ongoing discussion with their teens about safe driving. We’re asking parents and guardians to reinforce these five basic rules with any young drivers in their family:

  1. No cell phone use or texting while driving,
  2. No extra passengers,
  3. No speeding,
  4. No alcohol, and
  5. No driving or riding without a seat belt.

No texting, no drinking, no speeding… check, check, check; all good rules.

But no extra passengers? What does that mean?

I reached out to NHTSA to check. What’s an “extra” passenger? A spokesperson clarified: no extra peer passengers. It’s okay to drive with adults. (Other studies show that driving with siblings doesn't increase the risk as much as other peers, either [PDF].)

There’s certainly some sound logic there: Studies have shown teen drivers to be two and a half times more likely to engage in risky behaviors when driving with one teenage peer compared to driving alone [PDF]. And more passengers means more risky behavior. The risk of a fatal crash goes up in direct relation to the number of teenagers in the car. Most resources about safe teen driving recommend a passenger restriction of some kind.

But what we end up with is a recommendation against carpooling -- and that means more teens driving. That’s right: Instead of Jennifer (or, sorry, Madison) driving around to pick up Emily, Hannah and Olivia, they'll all drive separately to the mall or the game or the movies. That’s four teen drivers on the road now instead of one.

That could also be four teens begging their parents for a car because they can’t get rides with their friends. And I don’t need to tell you what all that means: more parking pressures, more greenhouse gas emissions, more carnage.

This comes at a time when trends are going in the opposite direction of a lot of single-occupancy driving, especially among young people. Teens are increasingly delaying getting their first drivers license and young people's enthusiasm about driving is at a historic low. Maybe the solo-driving rule will hasten teens' adoption of other modes. But it also rules out one popular and sensible way to limit driving.

Maybe instead of encouraging parents to insist that their kids never, ever carpool, NHTSA should launch a campaign teaching kids how to be really good, conscientious passengers that enhance safety instead of danger.

The “Ride Like a Friend” campaign, a school-based initiative on teen automobile safety, also recommends limiting teen passengers but in a more limited way. They suggest that teens “should have no passengers under age 21 during the first six months after licensure, and no more than one peer passenger for the second six months.” Moreover, they teach passengers what it means to ride safely: wearing a seat belt, reducing distractions, respecting the driver, and being helpful if asked.

There are so many things we can do to keep teens safe as they gain their independence. Teaching them to drive and ride safely is a big one. Encouraging -- and modeling -- the use of less dangerous transportation options is another. Requiring excessive single-occupancy driving -- that doesn’t seem like the best tool in the toolbox.

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