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Oct. 21-27 was National Teen Driver Safety Week. Teenagers being safe behind the wheel is a topic I often discuss with my patients. It is especially important this time of year, when the sun sets earlier and when drivers deal with harsher driving conditions due to rain, snow or ice. 

The statistics are sobering: New drivers, especially 16 to 17-year-olds, are nine times as likely to be involved in an accident, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety. They are three times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes. 

Traffic crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for American teenagers, with an average of one teen dying in a car crash every hour on weekends. More than 2,000 teens were killed in car crashes in the United States in 2016, and almost 300,000 teens were treated in hospitals.

Several factors contribute to the increased risk for teen drivers. They are less experienced than older drivers, and they are less likely to use seat belts. Teens often underestimate dangerous situations or hazardous conditions. Younger drivers tend to driver faster than older ones, and they will often drive closer to the car in front of them. The danger increases with male drivers or when multiple passengers are in the vehicle. Drinking and driving increases the rate of accidents by impairing muscle coordination, concentration, judgment and vision/perception.  

Texting and driving is said to be as much as 20 times as dangerous as focused driving, and teens are more likely to be texting, even in dangerous situations.

The best way to reduce the danger of accidents is through risk prevention. Every state has graduated driver laws to help reduce unsafe teen driving. In Ohio, teenagers who are 16 years old can’t drive with more than one non-relative passenger and can’t drive between midnight and 6 a.m. unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. Teens between 17 and 18 can’t drive unaccompanied between 1 and 5 a.m., and again, they can have only one non-relative passenger. There are then no restrictions once drivers turn 18.

Parents play a very large role teaching and enforcing safe driving habits. They are encouraged to create parent-teen driver agreements before allowing their teens to drive unaccompanied. This should include promises from teens to follow driving rules, to always wear a seat belt, to minimize distractions, to avoid using a phone while driving and to drive only during agreed-upon hours. Parents can also use this as an opportunity to review responsible driving habits, such as driving only with parents’ permission, paying for any tickets and only driving under certain weather conditions.  

If the teens break their side of the contract, parents should revoke driving privileges for a specific amount of time. Parents should also agree to provide a safe ride home if their teens don’t feel comfortable driving themselves or getting a ride with friends.

Most important, parents should always be good role models behind the wheel. By teaching our kids safe driving habits and by exhibiting these when we are driving, we can help lower the number of teen driver accidents and make the roads safer for everyone.

Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the Cleveland Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma. 

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