Every 13 minutes someone dies in a traffic accident in this country, and many of them are teenagers who are still learning how to drive. Why do we lose so many young people when they are on the threshold of adulthood?
A major new study out of the University of Texas, Austin, provides a few answers to this agonizing question, and some of them may be a bit surprising.
A teenager driving a pickup truck is twice as likely to be involved in a serious accident as a teenager driving a sedan. A teenager with one young passenger is more likely to be involved in a major accident than a teenager with two or three teenage passengers. A teenager, or anyone else, for that matter, is more likely to be involved in a serious accident while driving to school during morning rush hour than any other time of the day.
These are among the conclusions from a multi-year study of data collected by a Congressionally-mandated research project that sent safety experts to nearly 7,000 serious traffic accidents across the United States from 2005 through 2007.
The primary purpose of the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Study was to see which technological innovations might help reduce the highway slaughter across the country.
But a team of researchers from the University of Texas refined the data to look specifically at injurious or fatal accidents involving drivers between the ages of 16 and 20, thus providing a penetrating look at why so many teenagers are involved in so many serious accidents.
"Some of the findings surprised us substantially," Chandra Bhat, one of three authors of a study in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, said in a telephone interview. "It's a very rich data set."
Anyone who has watched a young driver rip away from an intersection probably figures the answers are obvious: Aggressive driving, inexperience, a willingness to take chances, and of course alcohol, are deadly on the highway. However, the exhaustive study sheds new light on the subject.
It indicates, for example, that there is a huge difference between a 16-year-old and a 19-year-old when it comes to safely operating a deadly machine.
Bhat's team broke the data down to two groups, 16-to-17-year-old drivers, and 18-to-19-year-old drivers. A driver in the younger group is 368 percent more likely to drive aggressively than a senior citizen, which may not seem all that surprising. But a teenager just a couple of years older is only 195 percent more likely to drive aggressively than a senior. That's a dramatic change in a relatively short period of time.
Those conclusions are possible because of the nature of the national traffic study, conducted by the Department of Transportation. The data was collected by trained safety researchers who had a unique level of on-scene access to drivers, witnesses and officers following thousands of accidents.
"The idea was for the researchers to get to the accident location at about the same time as emergency crews," Bhat said. "They interviewed people on site and looked at the totality of circumstances," including whether the driver was behaving aggressively, a key component in many accidents.