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Teen driver fatalities have plummeted since the 1990s, but car crashes remain the number one killer of teens in the U.S.

Teens are not bad drivers. The issue is that they are inexperienced and the part of the brain that controls decision making and judgment is not fully developed until the early to mid-20s, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.Teen driver

The good news is that programs and greater parent and adult involvement have lead for lower teen driver fatality numbers.

Graduated driver licensing laws have been a key reason that teen driver fatalities have fallen since the 1990s. Each state has some form of graduated licensing law, such as nighttime and passenger restrictions for teen drivers.

There is also a movement to expand those laws. For instance, New Jersey became the first state to require drivers younger than 21 to display a decal on their vehicles showing that they are new drivers.

Safe driving advocates trumpet the fact that teen driver fatalities have dropped since the 1990s, but there are still these sobering statistics:

  • Car crashes are the number one killer of teens in the U.S.
  • Teen drivers have the highest crash risk of any age group on the road.
  • Teens are three times more likely than drivers 20 and older to be involved in a fatal crash.

Distracted teen drivers

In what the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety called “the most comprehensive research ever conducted into crash videos of teen drivers,” researchers found that distracted driving plays a larger role in teen-related crashses than what police report data show.

The AAA Foundation of Traffic Safety researchers analyzed the six seconds leading up to a crash of almost 1,700 videos of teen drivers taken from in-vehicle event recorders. They found that distracted driving played a part in 58 percent of all crashes. This is much higher than 14 percent of all teen driver crashes that has been reported by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, according to AAA.

The study found that drivers, who were on their cell phones, kept their eyes off the road for an average of 4.1 out of the final six seconds leading to a crash. In fact, researchers found that teens, who were using their cell phones, didn’t react more than half of the time in rear-end crashes and actually crashed without braking or steering.

Here is what the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found was the most common form of distraction in crashes involving teens in the study:

  • Interacting with one or more passengers – 15 percent of crashes
  • Cell phone use – 12 percent
  • Looking at something in vehicle – 10 percent
  • Looking at something outside the vehicle – 9 percent
  • Singing/moving to music – 8 percent
  • Grooming – 6 percent
  • Reaching for an object – 6 percent

“It is troubling that passengers and cell phones were the most common forms of distraction given that these factors can increase crash risks for teen drivers,” says AAA CEO Bob Darbelnet, in announcing the results. “The situation is made worse by the fact that young drivers have spent less time behind the wheel and cannot draw upon their previous experience to manage unsafe conditions.”

Parents are key

This information is depressing, but there are ways to prevent accidents. Parents can play a major role in keeping their teen drivers safe.

Kara Macek, director of communications at the GHSA, says parents need to be the enforcers of teen driver laws – even more so than police.

“We rely on parents to understand and engage,” says Macek.

Macek says GHSA has teamed up with Ford Motor Company to promote the importance of parents for teen drivers. It’s important for parents to not only know the laws, but understand why they exist, she says.

“The most important thing is to be totally open and honest, explain that the reason you’re doing this is that you love them and you don’t want to lose them or see them hurt,” says Macek.

Here are a few ways parents can help their teen drivers:

  • Parents are the law in the household. They can enforce stricter rules than states.
  • Model good behavior. Children are always watching and observing their parents. Make sure you are a good role model as a driver – even when they’re infants.
  • Don’t text and drive.
  • Drive with your teen and practice in different conditions. Teen drivers will make better decisions if parents spend more time in the passenger seat.

“Today’s teens are tomorrow’s adults and today’s teens are tomorrow’s influencers. It’s really important that you get them on good driving habits early,” she says.

Adult influencers can play a part

GHSA is promoting a recent study called “Under Their Influence: The New Teen Safe Driving Champions.” The report, which was funded through a grant from the Ford Motor Company Fund, says “adult influencers,” such as teachers and coaches, can help lead teen drivers to make better decisions.

Some states, including New York, have created programs to engage coaches to teach better teen driver behavior. The idea is that teachers and coaches often spend as much if not more time with teens than parents. These adult influencers can reinforce good driving habits that are modeled by parents.

Macek says these kinds of community programs can play an important role in preventing teen driver fatalities.

“These are preventable tragedies. It takes all of us,” says Macek. “There is no silver bullet. It’s going to take all of us working together.”

Find out all about teen driver insurance in our Car Insurance for Teens Guide