Parental involvement plays role in youth accidents

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 24, 2000

In 25 years of law enforcement, Butler County Sheriff Dianne Harris has seen more than her fair share of accidents. Unfortunately, however, she said most of those accidents have involved young drivers.

Harris said her experience with underage drivers involved in accidents has led her to believe that speeding is probably the number-one cause, but that drugs and alcohol and other factors also play a major role.

"We have seen an increase in alcohol use among young people in the last five years or so but that is not the only reason there are so many accidents involving young people," Harris said. "Whether it is cell phones, or CD players or just showing off trying to impress their friends, I just don't think most young drivers pay attention to what's going on around them."

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Harris said she believes that most young people pick up bad driving habits by watching their parents drive, and that parental involvement is the best way to prevent reckless driving and serious accidents by young people.

"It all starts at home. Our kids learn everything by watching mom and dad, and that also translates to what they do behind the wheel of a car," she said. "We will never be able to curtail this problem until parents begin to get more involved in teaching their children proper driving habits and also practicing themselves."

ALFA Insurance agent Joan Reynolds said the increase in accidents by teenagers over the last decade has been translated into sharp increases in insurance premiums for young people. And, while there are discounts available for students who make good grades and keep a clean driving record, Reynolds said insurance companies have become increasingly skeptical of underwriting young drivers.

"At one time the rates for a girl were a lot better than they were for boys because statistically girls had fewer accidents," Reynolds said. "But, that has changed."

She said insurance premiums for girls are still slightly lower than boys, but that each year they get closer.

Reynolds said the number of accidents by young drivers here in Butler County is statistically low, based upon the number of claims her company receives.

"The problem is that when they do have an accident it is usually a big one," she said.

Information provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicates that children's driving records are directly related to the records of their parents. In fact, a 1999 study by the institute shows that young drivers whose parents had three or more accidents on their record were 22 percent more likely to crash at least once compared to teens whose parents had no accidents.

Likewise, the study indicated that teens whose parents had three or more violations on their record were 38 percent more likely to have a violation in their first year of driving compared to teens whose parents had no violations.

"Numerous studies have shown that the crash rates of young drivers can be influenced by such factors as lifestyle characteristics and licensing systems," says Institute Vice President Susan Ferguson. "However, the influence of parents hasn't attracted very much attention until recently," she noted.

The fact is that in every motorized country in the world, teenage drivers represent a major hazard. According to the Institute's study, the problem is worse in the United States than anywhere else.

Until recently, most states have allowed teens to get full privilege licenses at an earlier age than in most other countries, and very little driving experience typically was required prior to licensure.

Licenses are also inexpensive and easy to get, and access to vehicles for teens is easier in the United States than in any country in the world. The result is a greatly elevated crash risk among young drivers.

Information compiled by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration indicates very similar finding. According to NHTSA statistics, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for American teenagers. Figures show that in 1997 alone,

5,477 young people (passengers and drivers age 15-20) died in motor vehicle crashes, and 21 percent of the young drivers involved in fatal crashes had been drinking.

Young people aged 15-20 make up 6.7 percent of the total driving population in this country according to NHTSA findings, but are involved in 14 percent of all fatal crashes.

These figures also show that in 1997 over 60 percent of youth 16-20 who died in passenger vehicle crashes were not wearing seat belts, and almost one quarter (22 percent) of those who died in speed-related crashes were youth ,ages15-20.

Studies show that in the last decade, over 68,000 teens have died in car crashes, and 65 percent of teen passenger deaths occur when another teenager is driving. Nearly half of the fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers were single vehicle crashes.

Also, 41 percent of fatal crashes involving teenagers occur at nighttime (between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.).

NHTSA figures show that one quarter of fatally injured teen drivers (16-20 years old) in 1995 had a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) at or above .10 percent, even though all were under the minimum legal drinking age and are not legally permitted to purchase alcohol. These figures also show that two out of three teenagers killed in motor vehicle crashes are males.

How can we keep our children safe here at home, Sheriff Harris said parental involvement and increased education of young drivers is crucial.

"You've got to know what your children are doing when you're not around, especially when they are behind the wheel of a car," Harris said. "Parents have to set the example and set strict rules for the use of a vehicle."

Harris said parents should pay careful attention to the signs that a teenager might be using alcohol, especially behind the wheel, and also provide a positive example to their teens in that respect.

"Drinking and driving is something I have no tolerance for and this department enforces those laws very strictly," Harris said. "The problem is that you're not just risking your own life, but you're risking the lives of everyone on the road with you. Children can't handle alcohol, and they can't handle a car under the influence."