BATON ROUGE, LA — Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States. That’s one of the reasons why Oct. 16-21 has been designated National Teen Driver Safety Week. As an active participant in National Teen Driver Safety Week, the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission and similar state and national organizations are working together to raise awareness of the No. 1 killer of our nation’s teens.
Young drivers ages 15- to 20-years old are especially vulnerable to death and injury on our roadways for a number of reasons, which include immaturity and inexperience behind the wheel, low seat belt use, distracted driving and alcohol. While all of these issues contribute to the high teen death rate, safety advocates are growing increasingly concerned with driver distractions. There was a time not long ago when there were far fewer driver distractions inside vehicles. Today, texting, cell phones, MP3 players, GPS and other electronic devices and activities all vie for drivers’ attention. Anyone with a teenage son or daughter knows that many young people spend a lot of their time fiddling with such devices.
The statistics are heartbreaking. Nationwide, 3,214 teens were killed in crashes in 2009. Also that year, 691 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted teen driver. In Louisiana last year, 90 people ages 15-20 were killed on our roads. According to a national survey, nearly half of teens interviewed had ridden in a vehicle with a driver who texted and a third of the teens surveyed said they had texted themselves while driving.
The good news is that the number of teens killed and injured on our roadways has fallen in recent years. It’s impossible to pinpoint a single cause for these declines, but youth driving programs like graduated driver licensing have had a marked impact in saving lives. Also, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration research shows that anti-texting laws and stronger law enforcement have helped significantly.
The Louisiana Legislature has taken some important steps that are helping save lives. We have a graduated license procedure that requires completing a driver education course before a 15-year-old can be issued a “learner’s permit.” An “intermediate license,” which carries a number of restrictions and requires 50 hours of supervised driving, can be issued at 16 years of age. A full license can be issued once a minor has had an intermediate license for one year and has been incident-free.
The Legislature has also prohibited texting for all drivers. Cell phone use, including hands-free, is prohibited by drivers with a learner’s permit or an intermediate license.
Outreach programs such as this year’s National Teen Driver Safety Week are helping raise awareness of the risks teens face on the roads. Distracted driving is now an often-discussed topic in many high schools, resulting in many teen-led organizations and activities that are helping change attitudes and behavior throughout the nation. However, there’s just so much these programs can accomplish. There’s no substitute for strong parental guidance. Parents can lead by example by always buckling up, never drinking and driving, obeying speed limits and avoiding distracted driving.