Teen DrivingYour teen may have recently passed her state driver’s license test, but that doesn’t mean she’s ready to safely hit the open road. In fact, teens’ risk of having a car crash is highest immediately after they get their license. And it stays high for the first two to three years.

Motor vehicle crashes remain the number one cause of death for teens in the U.S. That’s why researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention are studying the causes behind crashes and how to prevent them.

By looking at how new drivers react in driving situations that commonly lead to crashes, parents and driving instructors can get a better understanding of the skills teens need before they get behind the wheel alone.

Studying how teens drive

To safely examine how teens drive and react during high-risk situations, the team at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention turned to the virtual world to develop a Simulated Driving Assessment (SDA).

Running on the Center’s advanced driving simulator, the SDA puts people behind the wheel during a simulated 35-minute drive that incorporates the 22 most common situations in which teen drivers experience serious crashes. During the drive, an automated reporting system “diagnoses” crashes, near-crashes and specific driving errors to guide the creation of driver training plans.

So how did newly licensed teen drivers fare during the SDA? In a study published in Injury Prevention, researchers reported that 43 percent had a simulated crash. For licensed and experienced adult drivers, only 29 percent crashed.

“Passing the on-road test — which tests the basic operation of a vehicle — does not mean that new drivers have the skills to avoid crashes," says Flaura Winston, MD, PhD, founder and scientific director for the Center for Injury Research and Prevention.

"All of the teens in our study had their license to drive in Pennsylvania, yet nearly half had the skills needed to avoid the simulated crashes while the other half did not,” adds Dr. Winston.

Dr. Winston hopes that all teens will one day be able to test their skills and learn to drive using scientifically-validated tools like CHOP’s SDA. Until then, there’s plenty parents can do to pass on safe driving habits from the start.

Before your child gets his license, and even after­ — and especially after a citation or accident — Dr. Winston says you can help your child develop the following skills needed to avoid crashes:

  • Maintain a safe following distance. Research shows that in emergency situations, teen drivers tend to be too close to the car in front of them. Kids — and even adults! — need to remember to keep at least three seconds distance between their car and the one directly ahead at all times and on all roads. It’s also important for teens to learn that a safe following distance might be even further back when driving at night, or in bad weather.
  • “Scan” the road while driving. Often, teens will look straight ahead while driving instead of scanning further ahead and to the sides of the car. This explains why a common type of crash for teens involves running off the road. “If you’re only looking straight ahead a few feet, even a curve is going to look straight,” says Dr. Winston. Help teens learn to keep an eye not just on the car and road in front of them, but also on what’s going on all around — look for crosswalks and hidden driveways.
  • Drive mindfully. We all know that multitasking — texting, talking on the phone, playing with the radio — is dangerous. But Dr. Winston points out that distracted driving doesn’t have to involve technology. “If your brain is thinking about anything other than driving, it’s multitasking, which can make it difficult to react during a potential crash.” Through words and your actions, teach young drivers to put electronics in the glove compartment, put on their seat belt, and take a deep breath each time they sit behind the wheel. They should also think about the responsibility of driving, about where they’re going, and set aside any distracting thought — all before turning the key.

Dr. Winston also says parents should keep in mind that driving is a privilege, not a rite of passage. Only you know for sure when your child is ready to take the keys and hit the road.

For more tips on teaching your teen to drive safely and learning how to properly supervise your child during driving practice, visit the Parent/Guardian section of CHOP’s Teen Driving Source website.