Teens Educate Peers About Distracted Driving

The sleep-deprived individuals "will often feel reasonably alert at the beginning of a trip, but the sedentary nature of driving can quickly unmask the underlying pressure to sleep, creating a dangerous situation within a few minutes, " said Thomas Balkin, chairman of the foundation and chief of the department of behavioral biology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, in Silver Spring, Md.

It's not clear why young people are more susceptible to a crash due to drowsy driving, Balkin told ABCNews.com, adding that one cause could be a greater level of sleep debt along with less ability to recognize sleepiness or stave off its effects.

Distractions: It's Not Just Cellphones

And then there's the much talked about driving while distracted.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 515,000 people were injured last year and more than 5,800 killed as a result of distracted driving.

But while Oprah Winfrey made headlines with her urge to end all cell phone use while driving -- encouraging individuals to sign her No Phone Zone Pledge -- it's not only texting or talking on a cell phone.

"Passenger distraction often gets overlooked, but when you add a teenage passenger, it doubles, add two passengers, it triples, and add three or more teenage passengers, and it increases crash likelihood by a factor of six," Fette said.

While 37 percent of teen drivers recognized text messaging as at least "very" distracting in a national survey by the insurance company Liberty Mutual, only 5 percent rated having a friend in the car as "extremely" or "very" distracting. But two-thirds of teens who die as passengers in a car crash are in vehicles driven by other teens, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Preventing Friends From Becoming Statistics

"Whenever you hear something from one of your peers, you take it to heart," Thompson said. "When you hear personal stories and how real people have been affected by teenage driving accidents, the message becomes much more effective."

On the second Tuesday of each month, for instance, Columbus High School in Columbus, Texas, dedicates the morning announcements to conveying safe driving messages, courtesy of the TDS team. La Vernia High School in La Vernia, Texas, has a wrecked car parked at the parking lot exit to remind students of the dangers. Duluth High School in Duluth, Ga., holds routine driver safety press conferences.

The message seems to be getting through.

Cell phone use while driving at Teens in the Driver's Seat schools has been shown to drop by as much as 30 percent, and assessments show that awareness levels of teen driving risks increase by up to 200 percent.

In the city of Garland, Texas, teen involvement in all crashes was 28 percent before the Teens in the Driver's Seat program. Afterward, teen involvement in crashes dropped to 16 percent.

"It is important for all teens to recognize the responsibility of driving and the risks associated with the privilege," Read said. "Through Teens in the Driver's Seat, teens are given the chance to help prevent their peers from becoming a statistic."

ABCNews.com contributor Caitlin Mangum is a member of the University of Texas ABC News on Campus bureau in Austin.

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