For teenagers, a car symbolizes freedom, adventure, instant cool and perhaps a hint of sex appeal.
But while having a car of their own may be every teenager's dream, new research shows that easy access to an automobile can also increase the risk of crashing it.
Compared to teenagers who shared a vehicle with their parents, teenagers with their own car were twice as likely to be involved in an accident, according to a study published today in the journal Pediatrics.
A related study from the same authors found that parenting styles can impact a teenager's risk of crashing.
"Part of the very nature of being the primary driver of a vehicle is the impression that no one is keeping track of what you are doing as closely," said Dr. Flaura Winston, co-scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and one of the authors of both studies. "But if a parent has to hand you the keys and asks, 'where are you going and who with,' that is crucial to the safety of early, inexperienced drivers."
Younger Drivers at Higher Risk for Accidents
And accidents can happen even at a standstill
For his 17th birthday, Collin Bates received a canary yellow, used Audi. Three months later, it was in the shop.
The Audi's front bumper was ripped off as a driver clipped his car from behind when she sped by him while Collin idled, waiting to make a left turn.
"It was ostensibly my fault, since her lane had changed [direction] 10 minutes before, but she was speeding and I was stopped," said Bates, now 25, who asked that his real name not be used. "But I don't think me having my own car made that accident happen or not happen... It happened."
Car accidents are the leading cause of death in 16- to 17-year-olds, claiming over 1,800 lives and injuring over 166,000 each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the survey, which the researchers conducted in collaboration with the insurance company State Farm, about 70 percent of the teenagers said they were the primary driver of a car. These respondents were also more likely to attend schools in richer neighborhoods, have good grades and have a job.
Driving Teens Know the Risks but Don't Avoid Them
But Winston noted that parent-teen interactions were one of the most important factors in whether a teenager engaged in risky driving behavior.
"A lot of things teens recognize already. They get that cell phones can increase risk. They get that passengers acting wild increases risk," Winston said, though she noted that understanding risks does not necessarily correlate with behavioral changes. "But they didn't recognize the role of inexperience. They pretty much thought that if they have a license, that means they are experienced."
Gaining Experience Safely
But while staying off the road automatically decreases the risk of an accident, it is counterproductive for young drivers. To safely gain experience, clear rules and monitoring by parents can cut the rate of accidents in half, according to the second report.
"Everyone wants to believe we can just educate teens out of the problem [by talking to them] but that's not the case," said Chris Galm, a spokesperson for the National Safety Council. "Experience is a crucial factor but it's not always enough for a teen to learn by doing, and that's where the role of parents comes into play."
Some rules, Winston said, applied at all times and to drivers of any age -- always wearing seatbelts, for example, or never using a cell phone while driving.
But other rules should be relaxed over time as young drivers gain experience and demonstrate responsibility, including having to ask for the car key, having passengers in the car, driving at night and on high speed roads.
"Pick the rules based on what matters," Winston said. "This is all about safety, not about control."
Bates shared a car with his parents during the first year he had his license before he received the Audi. He never got in an accident during that time and he hasn't had one since the first.
"Having a new car at 16 on my own might have been a bad idea, but I don't think me having the car at 17 was a horrible idea." Bates said. "And I've never made that mistake again."