Since May, several fatal crashes involving 16- to 19-year-old drivers and their passengers have occurred in our state. Although not all crashes are the fault of the driver, this age group is susceptible to driver inexperience and poor impulse control. Now there are also questions whether enforcement of the graduated driver licensing laws has been aggressive enough to send warning messages to novice drivers and their parents.
Most striking, though, is that these crashes bring collateral injuries and death to passengers. These riders pay the heavy price for driver decisions. Connecticut has strong teen driving laws — among the strongest in the nation. Public health researchers have shown that they significantly lower teenage car crash rates by 20 percent to 40 percent. But we continue to see car crashes where teen drivers and their passengers die.
Connecticut crash data for this combined age group shows that from August 2008 through 2011, about 6,000 passengers were injured and 61 passengers and teen drivers were killed. Connecticut's graduated driver licensing law does little to address issues with young passengers in these vehicles driven by inexperienced drivers. It is time for a campaign telling teens that they are "not just along for the ride." That trip, if the car is driven unsafely, could be deadly.
Among young drivers, there are clearly different levels of maturity and of parental involvement. We also know that the brain doesn't fully develop until we reach about 25 years old. This means that teenage drivers and their young passengers do not fully understand the risky behavior they exhibit in automobiles. Although state law prohibits 16- and 17-year-old drivers from having non-relative passengers during the first year they are licensed, recent crashes show more needs to be done for the 16- to 19-year-olds.
That's why passenger safety awareness is needed as much as training for drivers. Passengers are not just along for the ride. Parents especially — along with schools, police departments, health care providers, community organizations and state government agencies — need to take a stronger and more pro-active approach to helping teens understand the consequences of their choices when operating or riding in a vehicle. When all are working together, the message can be powerful.
How can we make this happen? We suggest the following:
•Parents need to know who is driving their teen and the extent of his or her driving experience. Did that driver gain driving experience under Connecticut's graduated driver licensing law or did the driver bypass this requirement and get a license at 18 years old?
•Parents need to continuously monitor and guide their teenagers' driving activity, and limit their travel to purposeful driving. Once teens begin to engage in joy-riding, their crash risk increases dramatically, and more so with each additional teenage passenger.
•Communities and high schools should consider a voluntary vehicle decal program that identifies novice drivers and helps police spot vehicles that should not have passengers. Parents should enforce its use with their young drivers and municipalities should set up community service programs that go hand-in-hand with the summons that police issue for those who must follow passenger restriction laws.
•Parents must be aware that driver's education is not the panacea for making teens safer drivers. The best way to provide teens with experience is to have parents drive with them under variable conditions (inclement weather, nighttime driving).
•Prosecutors and courts should consider starting a required passenger education and awareness program, like those that exist already for drunken driving and speeding. This would include all occupants of a vehicle whose driver is found in violation of certain state laws. Parents of any passengers under 18 should be required to attend as well.
•Pediatricians, family physicians and other health care professionals need to stress both driver and passenger safety during wellness visits and encourage the use of parent-teen driving contracts that set the driving rules and consequences for violations in advance.
•Police need to enforce Connecticut's graduated driver licensing laws. Statistics show substantial drops in both summonses and convictions, yet there's no evidence to show teens have significantly changed a traditional risk-taking behavior that is consistent with that age group.
Our message is simple. More teenage passengers than drivers are severely injured and killed in car crashes, and Connecticut teens continue to die in car crashes while violating graduated driver licensing restrictions. Too many teens (and their parents) don't follow Connecticut's laws. With better enforcement by police and parents, we can prevent teenage crash deaths.
Brendan T. Campbell, M.D., is pediatric surgeon and medical director of the pediatric trauma program and Garry Lapidus, PA-C, is director of the Injury Prevention Center, both at Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford. Bill Seymour is spokesman and director of the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles Center for Teen Safe Driving.Copyright © 2015, CT Now