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Teen driver safety - What's a parent to do?

I Introduction

Teen-driver car crashes remain the leading cause of permanent injury and death in Canada, the US and almost every industrialized nation worldwide. "Teen" for this article refers to ages 16 to 19. According to statistics from the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), it takes the next four leading causes of death combined just to equal that of car crashes in the US.(1) Simply stated, there is no greater risk to the safety and security of teenagers than driving.

II Scope of the Problem

In the US, 5,582 teens lost their life in 2001. (2) In Canada in 2000, we lost 387 teens and an added 29,656 were injured. (3) Here in Ontario in 2000, 40 teens were killed and 3,973 injured. (4)

Canada recognizes the community and family devastation, as well as the economic burden, imposed by teen driver car crashes. As such, "Canada's Road Safety Targets to 2010" includes an objective to see "a 20% decrease in the number of young drivers/riders (aged 16 to 19 years) killed or seriously injured in crashes." (5)

So how do we go about meeting this target?

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III Risk Reduction Approaches

There are several approaches to reducing the risk of teen-driver car crashes, injuries and fatalities. They include

* better engineering of roads, highways, bridges, traffic signaling devices, etc.;

* better engineering of motor vehicles with devices such as side impact air bags, crumple zones, active head restraint systems, etc.;

* more stringent traffic laws and their enforcement;

* improved and mandatory driver education;

* education programs; and

* graduated driver licensing.

Of these approaches, some have better outcomes than others. There is no doubt that better engineering of roads and automobiles have reduced risk of collisions, injuries and fatalities. For example, better barriers can significantly reduce the severity of crashes by keeping the vehicle from exiting the road or crossing a median. Better roads can actually reduce the risk of a crash.

Traffic laws and their enforcement have greatly reduced alcohol-related crashes, as well as injuries and fatalities associated with not wearing a seatbelt.

It is interesting, however, to note that driver education is not correlated to a reduction in teen- driver car crashes, injuries or fatalities. In fact, according to an Ontario Ministry of Transportation report, driver education actually seems to contribute to higher risk in the province of Ontario. (6) At best, international research shows driver education helps the participant to pass a basic driver license examination, nothing more. (7)

Graduated driver licensing is directly correlated to a reduction in teen-driver collisions, injuries and fatalities. The Ontario Ministry of transportation reports that, overall, Ontario's system of graduated licensing has reduced teen car crashes by 31%. Depending on the age level and jurisdiction involved, other literature has shown that graduated licensing can reduce car crashes anywhere from 4% to 60%. (8)

The effectiveness of education programs on the reduction of teen-driver car crashes is unknown. According to the National Highway traffic Safety Administration in the US, "there is no direct proof that any of the myriad of youth traffic-safety program activities not involving laws and enforcement had any direct effect on youth drinking and driving. But there also is no proof that they did not." (9)

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IV The I Promise Program

Despite the various interventions and approaches listed, teens still kill themselves and others in crashes three to four times more often than adults. Parents worry most about their teen once they are licensed for independent driving. Until recently, there was little a parent could do, apart from sending their teen to driver education, to reduce the risk of their son or daughter's involvement in a crash. Enter the I Promise Program.

The I Promise Program was conceived by Gary Direnfeld, MSW, a social worker who spent the better part of the 1980s working with hard-to-serve youth at Thistletown Regional Center and then the better part of the 1990s developing and directing brain injury rehabilitation programs primarily serving young persons who acquired their brain injuries in car crashes. The goal of the program is to reduce the risk of teen-driver car crashes by offering parents tools to set up a system of accountability around use of the family car by teens.

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V Program Development and Description

Developed with the input of thousands of stakeholders in traffic safety world wide, the I Promise Program consists of a robust parent-youth mutual safe-driving contract and a rear window decal that displays a toll-free number and asks the question, "Am I Driving Safely?" Parents and youth first complete the contract and then affix the rear window decal to the family car. Any call taken by the call-center results in a letter sent to the family detailing the call. This is the first program to use a combination strategy with both contract and toll free number to promote risk reduction in this population. The program serves to provide parents with tools to manage expectations, responsibilities and accountability with their new teen drivers.

Development of the program was aided by a grant from the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation to the Plan-It Safe research program of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). A formative evaluation took place prior to the program's launch in January 2002. A small-scale pilot study is now underway to evaluate the process and efficacy of the program. Research on trucking companies that use vehicle monitoring shows that they can reduce their collision rates by a full 22% (Hanover Insurance Report). In addition, it has been shown that parents who use a safe driving contract place greater restrictions on their teen's use of the car. (10)

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VI Research

After one year of operation, some impact information is beginning to emerge. Healthy Lancaster, an organization in Lancaster, South Carolina, says that parents of teens on the program report that their own driving has improved as well as that of their teen, and that they recommend the program to other parents. (11)

The results of the pilot study by the Plan-It Safe research program at CHEO may be available as early as June of this year. Meanwhile, discussion is now underway with the Injury Control Research Center at the University of Alabama in Birmingham to submit a grant proposal to the CDC in Atlanta to conduct an outcome evaluation of the program in the southern US.

To date, only one driver report has been taken by the I Promise Program call center. The report read, "Perfect driving."

For more information on the "I Promise Program," go to

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VII Conclusion

Driving the car is a rite of passage for youth. It signals greater independence and the coming of adulthood. For many licensure is a sign status. Teens are known as greater risk takers relative to adults. This combined with the operation of a several ton vehicle and limited on-the-road experience is clearly a mix that leads to greater risk. Reducing risk requires multiple inteventions. The I Promise program puts some control directly into the hands of parents and allows them to enter into a safe-driving pact with their son or daughter.

VIII References

1. Obtained from National Centre for Injury Prevention and Control,

WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, 1999 - 2000,

2. Obtained from Insurance Institute for Hightway Safety, Fatality Facts: Teenagers,

3. Obtained from Transport Canada, Canadian Motor Vehicle Traffic Collision Statistics: 2000,

4. Obtained from Ontario Ministry of Transportation, Ontario Road Safety Annual Report - 2000,

5. Obtained from Transport Canada, Canada's Road Safety Targets to 2010,

6. From Boase and Tasca, Graduated Licensing System Evaluation, Interim Report '98, Ministry of Transportation, Safety Policy Branch , Ontario, July 31, 1998, pp 21-23, available from

7. Obtained from Youthsafe, Young Drivers Literature Review,

8. From Herb M. Simpson's "The evolution and effectiveness of graduated licensing," in the Journal of Safety Research 34 (2003) 25-34, available from

9. From J.H. Hedlund, R.G. Ulmer and D.F. Preusser's Determine Why There Are Fewer Young Alcohol-Impaired Drivers, Chapter IV: "What Caused the Decrease," available from

10. From the National Institutes of Health press release, "Parent-Teen Intervention May Reduce Teen Driving Risk," available from and