Teenage drivers with new driver's licenses used to be able to drive without any restrictions under the law. Dr. Bruce Simons-Morton of NICHD conducted a survey of teen drivers. He found that most parents gave their newly licensed teenage drivers the keys without any restrictions. Things have changed since then.
Since 1990, all 50 states have adopted graduated driver licensing (GDL) requirements. Through GDLs, young drivers who have recently received their licenses are limited in the time of day and the number of passengers they may drive. These restrictions ease as the young drivers get older and gain more driving experience.
Even with graduated driver licensing (GDL) requirements, crashes are still very high among novice drivers, whose driving skills improve only with experience. Dr. Bruce Simons-Morton of the NICHD studies why teenage drivers are at higher risk of car crashes and how this risk can be reduced.
Dr. Simons-Morton recently conducted a study of teen drivers on the test track pictured here. He and his colleagues asked novice teen and experienced adult drivers to perform a task while driving. They had to take a cell phone from a research assistant, dial a number, and retrieve information from the phone while driving. Dr. Simons-Morton's team then measured the drivers' responses.
Just as study participants began dialing the phone number, researchers changed the traffic light at an approaching intersection from amber to red. The adult drivers were not very good at dialing cell phones while driving, but they always looked up and stopped at the light. Teens were very good with the cell phone, but nearly a third of them failed to look up in time to stop at the red light.
Prior research also showed that distraction and not looking at the road ahead are among the most frequent causes of crashes. Dr. Simons-Morton's study found that teenagers are more likely to get distracted while driving and therefore face a higher risk of vehicle crashes.
Parental involvement helps teens become safer drivers, says Dr. Simons-Morton. He focuses much of his research on new ways to involve parents with their teenagers' driving.
"Graduated driver's licensing sets only modest limits," he said. "It falls to parents to enforce the restrictions on graduated driver licensing and establish even stricter limits."
Dr. Simons-Morton recently studied a new technology, the DriveCam, that can be used by parents who want to help their teenager become better drivers. The device detects and record risky driving incidents such as rapid stops and quick turns, also known as elevated G-force events.
This research revealed that teenagers whose parents were alerted to incidents of risky driving incidents were able to become better drivers within a few weeks.
Dr. Simons-Morton and his team also developed and evaluated the Checkpoints Program, which helps parents set strict limits and then grant additional driving privileges as their teens demonstrate responsible driving behavior. Part of a sample parent-teen driving agreement is pictured here. To see the full agreement or for more information on the program, visit saferdrivingforteens.org
"Novice drivers improve only by gaining experience," said Dr. Simons-Morton. "Parental driving agreements and graduated driver's licenses are two ways we help teenage drivers gain experience under relatively safe conditions."