By Debbie Hersman
Just in the past week, the nation has experienced tragic losses of life on our roadways in a string of crashes involving young people, leaving a total of 15 dead. These crashes—in Ohio, Illinois, and Texas—have left parents without a son or daughter and siblings without a brother or sister. So many lives senselessly lost. And a report released last month shows that tragedies involving our teens are increasing.
For the first time in years, the number of 16- and 17-year-old teen driver deaths increased. And in the last decade, more than 58,000 teenagers have died in car crashes. Each year, more than 30,000 people die in car crashes in the United States, and more than 20 percent of annual U.S. highway fatalities involve teen drivers. Preventing these tragedies is a priority at the NTSB.
Our mission is to save lives and prevent injuries. Sadly, in our investigations, we see the same accident circumstances, with the same heartbreaking results, again and again. Motor vehicles are the number one killer of young people. Teen drivers are more likely to have a significant crash in their first year of driving—in fact, four times more likely than an adult or an experienced driver. The all-too-common cause is poor judgment. Speeding, reckless driving, driving while impaired, and, increasingly, driving while distracted, divert these young drivers from the task at hand—safe, responsible driving.
Decades of crash investigations have informed our opinion that young drivers should learn to drive in a controlled environment, one that gradually introduces them to increased responsibilities. States should implement comprehensive teen driver safety programs that include learner’s permit and intermediate driver licensing stages, with restrictions on nighttime driving, limits on the number of teen passengers, and bans on the use of portable electronic devices. These ideas aren’t new, but they are common sense and require commitment on the part of not only the driver, but also the parents and the collective community.
Driving is the most dangerous thing we let our children do. These three accidents show that our work isn’t done. Young people need to understand the great risks and consequences of driving habits, decisions and behaviors. Education, legislation, and enforcement are all necessary ingredients to ensure that we don’t experience another fatal week for teens on our roadways.