The latest data on traffic accidents and fatalities are a good news, bad news story. The good news is that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that after a brief uptick in 2012, fatal crashes have started going down again, re-starting a seven-year trend. The bad news is that motor vehicle crashes continue to be the leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 20.
Teenage drivers comprise almost six percent of licensed Colorado drivers, but account for more than 11 percent of our state’s traffic deaths. And while the traffic fatalities for Colorado teenagers went down 67 percent between 2004 and 2011, they climbed by 10 percent in 2012, the latest year for which statistics have been reported.
Inexperience behind the wheel is the main reason for teen traffic accidents and fatalities. Other factors include not wearing seat belts, alcohol, speeding and what the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety calls “problematic” behaviors – many related to lack of mature judgment and teenage psychology.
Graduated driver licensing laws improved the picture. Colorado enacted graduated licensing in 1999. It specifies that teens have a learner’s permit for at least a year, how much supervised driving time they must have, when they can drive and with whom they can drive for the first couple of years as well as the number of passengers allowed during the first several months they have a driver’s license.
Newer cars = safer cars:
However, there’s another major factor influencing traffic fatalities, especially among younger drivers: the safety of their automobiles. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that many teenagers are driving vehicles that don’t have good crash protection or safety technology. The IIHS reports that in the period between 2008 and 2012, 82 percent of driving fatalities among 15-17-year-olds were in vehicles six years old or older.
While new vehicles are more expensive, they also are safest and most fuel-efficient (which will matter when gas prices rise again). They have longer warranties, better reliability and are protected by lemon laws. And they have the latest technology. Besides electronic stability control (mandatory beginning in 2012), newer cars also have anti-lock brakes (required since 2011) and many have surround airbags, not just front airbags.
Manufacturers now use safety as a competitive selling point. For inexperienced drivers they might make a critical difference. Forward-looking sensors such as radar and cameras can monitor distance to the vehicle ahead and send an alert if the vehicle is too close or even slow it down to maintain a safe distance; some can automatically brake to prevent or lessen an impact. Adaptive headlights direct headlights around curves allowing greater visibility for the driver. Backup cameras and reverse backup sensors and side-view assist/blind-spot monitors help detect people and objects not easily visible. Lane-departure warning lets drivers know if they’re drifting.
In the long run, newer, more technologically advanced cars mean safer teenagers. Technology can’t compensate for inattentive driving or unnecessary risks, but it can help save lives.
The IIHS has some guidelines for parents to use when choosing a vehicle for their teenage driver:
- Go for lower horsepower. The more power, the more temptation to use it, testing limits that should be off-limit.
- Larger, heavier cars provide more protection in a crash, particularly if teenagers are driving older cars that don’t have the very latest safety technology.
- Do not invest in a car without electronic stability control (ESC), which helps control the vehicle on curves and slick roads – where a lot of emergency maneuvers take place. This is especially important in climates such as Colorado’s.
- Pay attention to safety ratings. Go for four or five stars (NHTSA) and “Good” and “Top Safety Pick” or “Top Safety Pick +” ratings (IIHS).
Whether you choose a new or used car for your teenage driver, it’s good to keep in mind that old advice: “Safety first.” Although a new car will likely cost more money, it may be the purchase decision that saves a life.