By Nicholas Worrell
Many of you know by now that the number-one killer of youth ages 15–19 is highway crashes.
Ninety-four percent of deaths in transportation happen on our roads. A disproportionate number of those deaths involve young and novice drivers – our children. Today, highway deaths are on the rise; clearly, there is much work to be done.
So the question is, what more can be done to save the next teen driver? Step by step, child by child, school by school—we must work our way into the hearts and minds of the youngest and most vulnerable to change the culture of safety on the nation’s roadways.
NTSB has issued several recommendations regarding teen driver safety, and we put the issue on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. But those actions alone aren’t enough. Together, with other advocacy groups and government entities, we must get out and educate and create youth safety ambassadors to carry the message of safety to their community and peers.
Youth today are inundated with messages. When I talk to teens, they’ve grown up with messages, such as “Don’t Drink and Drive” and “Buckle Up.” Some messages are newer: driving and sending Facebook messages is not safe; talking on the phone while driving is not safe; texting at the red light is not safe; driving on too little sleep is not safe; driving with passengers in their car is not safe.
As youth hear passionate NTSB representatives talk about the safety lessons learned from our accident investigations and how such accidents lead to tragic deaths for those who come face-to-face with the real consequences of poor decision making behind the wheel, we hope the ad campaigns that they have seen will take on a more real human dimension. When I am fortunate enough to be that representative, I get the thrill of seeing the light bulb go on for some. And when young people approach me after a talk about how they can spread the word to other teens, I know that we have succeeded. We are reaching the teens who can translate to their peers the lessons that the NTSB has learned.
This week, I had the opportunity to help create young advocates and ambassadors for safety. It began with my first visit to an assembly of students at The Masters College in Newhall, California. Many young people in the audience had never heard of the NTSB and seemed puzzled at first as to why teen driver safety is so important to us – but they now know. When I asked who had ridden with someone who was driving distracted, almost every student’s hand went up. When I pointed out that those drivers were putting their lives at risk, in addition to their own, I saw the light bulb go on for many.
My next visit was at Yucaipa High School in Yucaipa, California, where I partnered with Impact Teen Drivers Educational Coordinator Zoe Schuler, a champion for safety who makes it her business to reach youth and adults with lifesaving messages and strategies.
During my visit, students learned about the various elements of distracted driving: cognitive, manual, visual, and auditory distractions. They watched videos and heard stories of victims who were hit by distracted drivers or who have hit someone else. More importantly, they learned how to adapt to the game plan for safety.
They learned how common habits can become deadly habits. They listened attentively, and when asked for takeaways, each of them recapped what they had learned – and explained how they would adapt their own habits to make their lives safer.
This collaborative effort with Impact Teen Drivers, like other collaborative efforts with advocacy groups, was enormously fulfilling. Working alongside the group’s educational coordinator reminded me that I was continuously learning, as well.
My final presentation was to more than 200 students from Los Angeles high schools. This was just one of several presentations delivered to teens as part of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators Annual Conference. Each year, the Caucus’ first order of business is always to meet with students in the state in which they are convening to help educate and empower youth. During their visit to this conference, students learned life skills, how to be a success, and about the legislative process. I had the opportunity to speak about why the work we do at NTSB is so important. I reminded teens about why we need them to speak up and speak out for transportation safety.
One of the students attending said she was, “always telling her parents not to text and drive, but they still do it.” Yet she remains an advocate, even if it means speaking up to her parents. I loved that approach, and took the opportunity to tell her peers that they had my personal permission to speak up if they saw parents or other adults modeling bad driving habits. After all, adults must model good driving habits for youth, because while kids learn from what we tell them, they learn more from what they see us do.
This is one week of NTSB outreach at a glance, a week of educating those who will drive in the lane next to us tomorrow – and soon after that, will be helping to make decisions on highway safety legislation.
Millennials are the most connected generation ever, and we must go where they are to communicate the safety message. But while millennials are social media “natives,” they still crave face-to-face contact. They are different from the generation I grew up in: they believe that they are entitled to speak up and be taken seriously, and are hungry for the knowledge that gives them something to speak up about.
Reaching new drivers, one youth at a time, one step at a time, can save young lives. But the real benefits begin when they reach each other – and the adults in their lives – after the NTSB has gone.
Nicholas Worrell is the Chief of the Office of Safety Advocacy in the NTSB Office of Communications.