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Health Department Greenlights Teen Driver Research

If you missed that April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month (preoccupied, perhaps?) the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development has released a plethora of research on why teenagers are such risky drivers and ways school districts can help them drive safely.

Teenagers have the highest crash rate of any age group of drivers, and the NICHD's Naturalistic Teenage Driving Study found that they are five times more likely than adults to drive unsafely, and four times more likely to crash or nearly crash.

In a series of studies, NICHD researchers put sensors on the vehicles of 42 Virginia adolescents in the first 18 months after they had received their driving licenses; the trackers recorded "high g-force events" such as sudden braking, hard turns or acceleration. Researchers found that the more such events a teenager had in the last month, the more likely he or she was to get into a crash or near-crash. An adult's presence in the car cut the risk of crashing by 75 percent, but if a driver had other teenagers in the car, particularly boys, the likelihood of crashing nearly doubled. In fact, a car full of teenage boys showed the highest risk of a fatal crash.

The teen driving study found that texting, eating and reaching for objects were the most common things that led to crashes— and while these are distracted behaviors for adults, too, they are much more dangerous for teenagers, researchers found. A teenager dialing a mobile phone was seven times more likely to crash, while for an adult the risk increased only 2.5 times.

A separate study showed why: Adult drivers on a test track who were asked to make a call would glance up as they approached an intersection, spotting a changing yellow traffic light. Teenagers, on the other hand, would complete dialing the number before looking up, thus often running a red light.

In response, the NICHD has provided funding for University of Massachusetts-Amherst researchers who are developing a computer simulation program to train new drivers to spot and respond to road dangers.

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