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Teen drivers: Keeping your kid alive

More teenagers die in car wrecks than by any other means. There are things you can do.

November 18, 2005; Posted: 12:32 p.m. EST (1732 GMT)

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN/Money staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - There's no question that teenagers, as a group, are frighteningly bad drivers. Mile-for-mile, teens wreck their cars four times as often as older drivers, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Car crashes are the most common way, by far, for teenagers to lose their lives. Every year, 5,500 to 6,000 teens die in car crashes, a rate that has been fairly constant for the last ten years.

It's easy to understand why. Teen drivers are inexperienced. To make matters worse, teenaged drivers are, simply, teenagers. They are easily bored and overconfident.

There are things that can be done to reduce the devastating toll of teen car crashes, though. Unfortunately, the method that has been used for years -- driver education classes -- does nothing to reduce crash rates, according to a number of studies cited by the Institute.

In fact, some types of driver training can actually make things worse, they say.

Graduated driver licensing systems, which have been shown to work, are now on the books in most states. For those laws to be really effective, though, they have to be enforced and that hasn't been happening, said a spokeswoman for the Institute.

But, even if the police aren't helping much, there are things parents can do to keep their kids safe behind the wheel.

Don't count on classes

While driver ed classes, like those taught in most high schools, can teach the basic skills of driving a car, several studies have shown no difference in crash rates between teens who took driver ed classes in school and those who did not, according to the Institute.

In fact, by helping young drivers get their licenses earlier, driver ed classes may actually be causing more wrecks than they prevent. Newly licensed drivers are less likely to crash the older they are. Even waiting a year or two can make a difference, according to IIHS statistics.

Classes that teach more advanced driving skills, such as skid recovery, are also counter-productive, according to the IIHS. Male drivers who take these classes actually have higher crash rates, the IIHS says. This may be because the classes increase the driver's confidence that he can handle risky, high-speed maneuvers of the sort that another driver might simply avoid.

One approach that might work is having teens teach one another about safe driving. That's a technique being tried by the Allstate Foundation, a not-for-profit group funded by the Allstate insurance company. Among other things, they are sponsoring programs in which teens who have been involved in tragic accidents talk to other young people in their community about what happened to them.

What works

While it may not be popular with teenagers, the one thing that does seem to work at reducing teen crash rates is restricting driving privileges. Most states have now done away with the old fashioned system in which a learner's permit was followed quickly by a full, unrestricted license.

Most states now use graduated licensing systems. After a "learner's permit" phase, teen drivers are given special restricted licenses that allow them to drive only during certain times and under certain conditions. These programs usually specify a minimum number of hours a teen must drive under the supervision of an adult licensed driver.

Generally, under these programs, teens are not allowed to drive during night-time hours. That's because a high percentage of teen accidents happen at night.

Also, there are restrictions on the number of other teenage passengers they can carry. Again, this is based on simple statistics. A teen who is driving with other teens in the car is more likely to crash. And the more kids there are in the car, the more likely a wreck becomes.

Rules like these allow young drivers time to grow into their role as drivers and allow time for development to catch up with risks.

Unfortunately, said Susan Ferguson, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute, police aren't vigorously enforcing these rules.

Police tend to focus on other priorities, such as seatbelt use -- which is low among teens -- and drunk driving, said Capt. Travis Yates of the Tulsa, Okla. police department. Yates moderates the Policedriving.com Web site and writes a regular column on police driving for the Web site PoliceOne.com.

"You don't need the law, you need active parents," said Yates.

Even where laws don't exist or aren't strict enough. parents can drive a harder bargain.

"Maybe your state doesn't have a passenger restriction," Ferfuson said. "You should have one of your own."

Believe it or not, your children will probably listen. Asked "Which people could be best at getting you to drive more safely," 75 percent of teenagers said "A parent," according to a survey by the Allstate Foundation. "A friend," selected by 53 percent, was the second-most-common response.

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