Five teens died late Monday afternoon in a fiery wreck in Newport Beach that left the car they were riding in split in two and engulfed in flames. Local police said that excessive speed was a contributing factor.
Sadly, year after year at the end of school and beginning of summer, we hear of teens dying tragically in accidents that could have been avoided. Tragic accidents do happen, but hopefully parents can use these opportunities to review with their teens some critical information about driving.
Parents often remind their teens not to drink and drive or get in a car when the driver has been drinking because parents know that the combination of alcohol and driving is a lethal one. What many parents don’t know however, is that the fatality rate for teen drivers skyrockets depending on how many teens are in the car. The Automobile Club of America (AAA) surveyed crash data on 16 and 17 year old drivers across the country and found that when one passenger in the car is under the age of 21, the chances of a fatal crash jump by 44%. An additional young passenger in the same car doubles the chances of a deadly crash. With three or more passengers under 21, the chances of a fatal crash jump by 400%. Wise parents do not allow new drivers to carry young passengers and make certain that teens follow graduated licensing rules. The rules are in place to help prevent tragic accidents.
The developing brain inside a teen’s head is why adolescence is a time of heightened vulnerability for risky behavior. Speeding is just one example of risky behavior that teens frequently engage in. Dr. David Fassler, a psychiatry professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine who has testified before legislative committees on brain development, says the research doesn’t absolve teens but offers some explanation for their behavior. “It doesn’t mean adolescents can’t make a rational decision or appreciate the difference between right and wrong,” he said. “It does mean, particularly when confronted with stressful or emotional decisions, they are more likely to act impulsively, on instinct, without fully understanding or analyzing the consequences of their actions.”
Laurence Steinberg, Psychology professor at Temple University has studied adolescent risk taking and says that a teenager’s brain has a well-developed accelerator but only a partly developed brake. By around 15 or 16, the parts of the brain that arouse a teen emotionally and make him pay attention to peer pressure and the rewards of action, the “gas pedal,” are probably all set. But the parts related to controlling impulses, long-term thinking, and resistance to peer pressure and planning, the “brake,” mostly in the frontal lobes are still developing.
For parents, what this all means is that they must make every effort to ensure that their teen follows the law. This means both the laws regarding safe driving and the family rules regarding driving. As a teen’s primary role model, parents must reinforce, repeatedly, the need for their teen to drive safely and observe all of the rules and laws at all times. Smart parents will have established driving contracts with their teen. When a rule or law is broken, teens need to experience immediate and effective consequences. When a teen realizes that his or her parent means business and there won’t be a second chance, they are more likely to follow the rules.
Not all tragic accidents are preventable, but by making certain your teen is following all the laws and driving safely, you can lower the risk of another tragic accident happening.