Will a New Government Campaign for Safer Teen Driving Backfire?

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.

  • Fbfree

    Distraction by other youth in a vehicle is dangerous and by encouraging teenagers to avoid driving together without supervision, US DOT is encouraging a safer behaviour. While this may replace some trips with 4 teenagers driving seperately, in many more cases it will result in an older person riding along, or driving, and greater awareness of the dangers of distraction and risk taking.

    This looks like a good campaign to me.

  • Ben Ross

    There’s a social justice issue here too. This will discourage kids who own cars from socializing with friends who don’t.

  • Joe R.

    Is there any good reason 14 to 21 year olds should be driving at all? We’ve made the legal drinking age 21 in many states. That should be the legal driving age as well. Certain parts of the brain aren’t fully developed until 21 or older, notably those having to do with impulse control. It would make more sense to keep young, impulsive people from driving altogether, even if this comes at the cost of their parents having to chauffeur them until they turn 21. Better yet, this would put a lot of pressure on localities to make more areas walkable or bikeable.

  • thielges

    The reason I heard was to allow farm kids could help out with operations. In the rural state where I learned to drive you could get a learner’s permit at age 15 and a full license at 16.

  • Anonymous

    You got it wrong. The drinking age was made 21 in a quest to prevent inexperienced young drivers from drinking.

    I’m all for better school ed and driving, but I think 16 years should be the baseline age above which anyone without a mental disability should be able to drive, vote, drink and engage in consensual sex.

  • Joe R.

    I’m all for allowing people to vote, drink, or engage in consensual sex at ages much younger than 21 because they can’t harm others when doing so. In fact, I might even set the age for all three at 13 instead of 16 because that’s roughly the age of puberty. The problem with allowing driving under age 21 is that certain areas of the brain haven’t developed sufficiently to allow proper judgement. Poor or improper judgement when driving obviously can affect more than just the driver. There’s a reason why insurance rates are dramatically higher in households with young drivers, and that’s because those drivers have a disproportionate number of claims.

  • Anonymous

    In part, yes, but that is not a common thread throughout all teens. In other part, it is due to the fact they are inexperienced. Whatever you put the age, newbie drivers are bound to get involved in more minor crashes. It helps if driving ed is made better.

    Moreover, restricting driving for 21+ would severely impact their ability to work on summers, get internships of jobs, or even visit relatives and friends well past they graduated high school in all but 2 or 3 big American cities. You will essentially home-bound them, especially those not going to college (the only major place where people on the 18-21 age range congregate that are usually fit for a car-free lifestyle).

  • Mallrat92204

    I can’t remember if it’s for 6 months after you get your license, until you’re 18, or whichever of those comes first, but in California there is a law that you cannot drive with others under 18 in the car with you without an adult also in the car.

  • Joe B

    I’d like to add two more rules.

    * No aggressive driving. That means no rabbit starts, no hard braking, no quick lane changes, no weaving, no fast turns.

    * And a rule for parents: Set a good example! Drive calmly and defensively and show your kids how it’s done.

  • Todd Edelman, Slow Factory

    The critique here of this totally off-target automobilist abomination is headed in the right direction. Clearly what the parent should have done is first ask if they can take their bike, public transport… or even walk, or better:

    “Parents, have a discussion about mobility with your children. Sit down and make a priority pyramid…”

    So just more non-holistic garbage from the so-called government. I would prefer to have Obama shown taking OFF his helmet, because he is choosing to walk instead of cycling….

  • Karen

    When I was a teen, one of my friends wasn’t allowed to ride in a car with more than 2 people. We had to drive separately anytime we wanted to go out as a group. Definitely a waste of gas/money.

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