It's every parent's nightmare: teenagers behind the wheel.
And they're right to worry: Statistics show that 16-year-olds are three times more likely to have an accident than 18- or 19-year-olds, and eight times as likely as 25-year-olds. A young driver is involved in a fatal crash every 62 minutes, and car accidents are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds. In 2000, 3,594 drivers in that age group were killed in crashes.
A new survey in Southern California has found that teen drivers are even more reckless than researchers had feared. In the survey, more than 70 percent of teen drivers in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties said they had been involved in drunk driving, drag racing or other reckless driving behavior.
Doctors say that 16 — the traditional driving age in most states — may be the worst age to give children their driver's licenses, because at that age they are often in the middle of a growth spurt in which their bodies grow faster than their central nervous system.
"Their eye-hand coordination and their other fine motor skills are less adept when they're in the middle of their growth spurt," says Lawrence D'Angelo of Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., who talks to parents about teen driving.
At 16, there are also psychological factors at play, D'Angelo says. "What happens when a parent tells a 16-year-old to slow down or keep your eye on the road is that often that 16-year-old tunes their parent out and does just the opposite."
D'Angelo says teenagers' problems with adolescence often play out inside the car. "It's a terrible place for adolescents to act out their rebellion."
Caught on Tape
Primetime wanted to find out how prepared kids are when they get their license at age 16, so in 1997 the show's producers followed several new drivers as they drove their hometowns, often with friends on board. Cameras inside the kids' cars recorded what they were doing behind the wheel. The teenagers knew the cameras were there, but did not seem too concerned about them.
On a trip from to a tennis match 10 miles from her home in Gaithersburg, Md., 16-year-old Lauren Hospital drove at 10 to 15 miles per hour above the speed limit most of the way, in full view of the camera in her car and the Primetime producers traveling behind her. At one point, distracted because she had lost her way, she ran a red light without even noticing it — narrowly missing another car.
Another 16-year-old, Amy Persinger, showed even less concern for the camera. One rainy Saturday night, she was running late while she was driving seven friends to the homecoming dance. First Persinger ran a light that was turning red, saying, "Oh, well. Sorry." A few minutes later, her friends pointed out she had just missed a stop sign and she says, "Whoops. That's on TV." Then she missed a second stop sign, and took off at 50 miles per hour in a 40 mile-per-hour zone.
When shown the tapes of their daughters' driving, the parents of both girls were shocked. While Hospital thought her driving "didn't seem like that bad," her mother deemed it "pretty scary" and told her, "We need to talk."
Now, 4 1/2 years and two accidents later, Hospital is a junior in college. Though she says the accidents were not her fault, she says they taught her that drivers' decisions can have real consequences. "The main problem is when you're 16, you don't have these experiences, so you kind of wing it," she says now. Persinger, too, says she is a much safer driver today.
How's My Driving?
One thing parents can do to monitor their teens' driving is slap a "How's My Driving?" sticker on their child's car, similar to the stickers on commercial trucks. Several companies provide such stickers, along with a toll-free number road users can call to report on a teen's driving. The companies relay the reports back to the teen's parents.
After Anne Rekerdres, a 16-year-old from Dallas, got a speeding ticket recently, her father Randy signed up with Tell-My-Mom.com, one of the companies that provides a toll-free reporting line, and put a sticker on her car. Rekerdres says it was "kind of embarrassing" when her parents put one of the stickers on her car. "It does kind of make it seem like my parents don't trust me," she says.
The most popular response to teen driving has been at the state level, with something known as graduated licensing. Pioneered by Michigan in 1996, graduated licensing is a system in which young drivers start out with restrictions such as having to drive with an older driver present, not being allowed to drive at night, and not being allowed to drive with other teenagers in the car. The restrictions are gradually lifted as a teen gains driving experience, provided they have no accidents or tickets.
All but three states have now adopted some form of graduated licensing.