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SALT LAKE CITY — Summer is traditionally a time for Utah teens to enjoy a carefree break from their academic pursuits. Unfortunately, that easy-going attitude is often reflected in their driving habits. As a result, an average of nearly 800 teens nationwide lose their lives between Memorial Day and Labor Day, earning this timeframe the nickname of “100 Deadliest Days.”
Unsafe teen driving is not just a concern during the summer; it’s a year-round issue. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States, and teens have the highest crash rate of any age group. In addition to endangering young drivers, it affects motorists, passengers, pedestrians and occupants of others' vehicles, regardless of their age.
There are ways to reduce the number of tragedies involving teen drivers. Parents play a key role in setting rules and working with their teens to become safer drivers, yet many don’t know where to begin.
AAA offers a number of strategies for parents to help teens learn to become safe drivers. They include:
A graduated licensing system has been shown to be highly effective at reducing teen crashes, deaths and injuries. Utah is one of the states that has already adopted this program, and teen crashes and fatalities have decreased dramatically. The phased program is specifically designed to slowly introduce teens to the world of driving, allowing them to learn the skill of driving by spending countless hours behind the wheel observing traffic and other drivers.
The first phase is the learner's permit. The minimum age for this permit is 15, and teens must receive permission from a parent to take the exam.
Once the learners permit is issued, the driver may operate a vehicle under supervision of a driving instructor, parent/legal guardian or another licensed driver at least 21 years old who has signed for financial responsibility. Seat belts are required for all passengers, and the use of cell phones or other communication devices is strictly prohibited. These restrictions must be observed for a minimum of six months.
During this time, the driver must also complete a state-certified driver's education class, as well as complete a minimum of 40 hours of supervised driving, with 10 of these hours taking place at night.
Upon completion of the learning phase, the driver may apply for a driver's license at the age of 16. For the first six months of licensure, teen drivers may not drive with any passengers, with the exception of immediate family members.
Drivers under age 17 may not operate a vehicle between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. unless driving to or from a school, employment activity or supervised by another licensed driver at least 21 years of age.
In addition to these restrictions, teen drivers and their parents need to be aware of laws regulating use of seat belts and distracted driving. In Utah, the primary seat belt law requires drivers and passengers under age 19 to wear a seat belt at all times while in the vehicle. And the state recently passed a law that restricts drivers from using their mobile phones to text or make calls without the use of a hands-free device while operating a vehicle, regardless of age.
Although the state has attached certain guidelines and restrictions to this phased approach, ultimately it is up to the parents to determine whether or not their teen driver is ready to move on to the next phase. By supervising teen driving during the learning stage and closely monitoring their habits, parents can make solid decisions about whether or not their teens are ready to take on more driving responsibility.
Studies have shown that risky driving, traffic violations and crashes tend to be lower among teens whose parents set limits on their driving privileges. Parents can reduce risky driving behavior by creating a parent-teen driving contract that regulates the young driver’s vehicle access and establishes non-negotiable rules.
Elements of this contract may include a requirement to strictly abide by the rules of the road, restrictions on times and the number of miles the teen may drive, a shared commitment for automobile maintenance and expenses, courtesies and commitments, and conditions under which use of the vehicle may be revoked. A sample parent-teen driving contract is available at TeenDriving.AAA.com.
Rest assured that your teen knows how to deal with a variety of common driving conditions by practicing with them in various scenarios during the learning stage. Teaching teens to drive in heavy traffic and inclement weather will provide them with the confidence necessary to make quick and safe assessments while driving solo.
According to a study by the AAA Foundation about the “Characteristics of Fatal Crashes Involving 16- and 17-Year Old Drivers with Teenage Passengers,” the prevalence of risky driving behaviors increased according to the number of teen passengers. In correlation with this increase, the risk of being killed in a car crash quadruples when there are three or more passengers younger than 21; it doubles when there are two passengers younger than 21 and increases by 44 percent when one passenger younger than 21 is present. Conversely, the risk of death in a car crash decreases by 62 percent when an adult 35 or older is in the vehicle.
Clearly, the presence of other teens in the vehicle can be a fatal distraction. By insisting that young drivers not allow teen passengers in the vehicle, especially during the first six months that teen drivers have licenses, parents can reduce the probability that their child will engage in risky behavior and ensure their safe return.
It’s hard to convince a teen driver to engage in safe driving practices, such as wearing a seat belt, adhering to speed limits or putting away mobile phones, if parents are not also demonstrating this behavior. The best way for parents to transfer their driving “wisdom” to teen drivers is to serve as a role model. Drive the same way you expect your teens to drive, and they will be more likely to adopt these safety habits.
Rolayne Fairclough handles media relations, government relations and community involvement for AAA Utah.