Alan and Charlotte Lewis of Indianapolis tried to do all the right things to get their teenage son, Andy, safely through those dangerous first few years of driving.
Alan started teaching him to drive go-carts when he was 9. Later, they followed the provisions of their state's graduated driver licensing (GDL) program, which phases in driving privileges for beginners as they gain experience.
They spent hours on the road with him and paid for a commercial driver's education program.
Still, they worried. They were acutely aware of the terrifying reality: Automobile crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in the USA, and the risk is highest for young males.
So when Charlotte saw a newspaper ad for a new program at storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway in which professional race car drivers taught teens driving skills, they enrolled him immediately. "We just wanted to give him any edge that he could have while driving out there," says Alan Lewis, 45. "He had an incredible time, and learned a lot about driving. It was probably better than driver's ed."
Teen driving has become one of the nation's major highway safety focuses over the past decade. Parents, teens and road safety groups are turning to an ever-expanding variety of programs they hope will help get young drivers safely through the deadliest part of their driving lives.
These efforts, which are largely unproved by research, include everything from advanced driver training to peer-pressure programs and shock videos that stress the safe driving message.
It's during the first few months of driving alone, no longer under the watchful supervision of Mom or Dad, that the risks are highest for young drivers. The crash rate for drivers 16 to 19 years old is four times as high as that of drivers 20 and older, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The risk is highest for 16-year-olds: Their crash rate is nearly twice as high as that of 18- and 19-year olds, IIHS says.
Close supervision at first
Many traffic safety experts, including those at IIHS, agree that graduated driver licensing - in which new drivers begin with heavy parental supervision and then get more privileges the more hours they spend behind the wheel - is the most effective approach. "Between 2002 and 2007, fatal crash rates for 16-year-olds went down by 45%, and I think a lot of that had to do with GDL," says Susan Baker, an epidemiologist specializing in injury prevention at Johns Hopkins University and a leading traffic safety researcher. "Forty-five percent - that's almost a miracle."
Peter Kissinger, CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, calls adoption of GDL, which began with Florida in 1996, and legislation raising the drinking age to 21 the two biggest innovations in teen driving safety. "There remains a bit of controversy about 18- and 19-year olds, but there is absolutely no question that with regard to 16- and 17-year olds, GDL works and it works really well. It represents perhaps the most significant intervention that we've applied in this country."
Every state has a GDL program, but they vary widely depending on how many provisions are implemented and how strictly they're enforced. The provisions: minimum age of 16 for a learner's permit; a mandatory waiting period of at least six months before a driver with a learner's permit can apply for a provisional, or restricted, license; 50-100 hours of supervised driving; minimum age of 17 for a provisional license; nighttime driving restrictions; a limit on the number of teen passengers allowed in vehicle; and minimum age of 18 for an unrestricted license.
That means teen drivers' safety on the road depends, in part, on where they live.
A 2010 national study by the Insurance Institute found that states with GDL laws rated "good" have a 30% lower rate of fatal crashes for 15- to 17-year-olds than states with laws rated "poor." Earlier evaluations have found similar results.
However, a recent report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), showing a small overall increase in teen driving deaths for the first six months of last year compared with the same period in 2010, found no correlation between the rise in deaths and a state's GDL program. Many experts, including Baker and Kissinger, stress that parents are the ultimate authority: They can adopt and enforce the provisions of the best GDL programs, regardless of their state laws.
Worried parents are trying many other things. Like the Lewises of Indianapolis, thousands of parents around the USA have enrolled their young drivers in specialized programs where they're taught enhanced driving skills. One of the best-known is the Ford Driving Skills for Life program, which toured the USA last year teaching advanced driving skills to hundreds of teen drivers at no cost.
This year, the initiative - sponsored by the Ford Motor Co. Fund and the GHSA - focuses on young drivers in rural communities, who have twice the crash rate of urban peers.
Such supplementary driver training programs are booming in popularity, according to a new study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency evaluated 56 such programs. It found that 85% of providers said safety was the main reason students took their programs; 82% said parents made their children enroll.
Miles Ahead, the Indianapolis program that Andy Lewis participated in, was partly inspired by the Ford program, says co-founder Stephan Gregoire, a former professional race car driver who competed in seven Indy car races from 1993 to 2001.
Last November, the first class of 45 students completed the half-day, $429 course for licensed drivers 16-19. It was the first time in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 102-year history that such a program had been allowed at the track, Gregoire says.
Under the tutelage of professional race car drivers, students learn advanced skills in avoiding road hazards, controlling skids and minimizing distractions. "With 16- and 17-year-olds, I thought they might not really be inclined to listen," Gregoire says. "But it's amazing how much you can teach them. It's important to have race car drivers, especially young ones, to communicate safety to young people."
Alan Lewis says, "They have these young race car drivers that are their contemporaries and they really listen to them. Andy handles himself very well in the car."
Kissinger cautions that the effectiveness of advanced programs has not been proved. "There is no evidence that these programs, in fact, produce safer drivers," Kissinger says. He says such programs could "build overconfidence in the young driver. ... Parents should be very cautious about utilizing advanced driver training."
Miles Ahead co-founder Ted Woerner says, "It's far more prudent ... to have your child experience a skid for the first time in a completely safe environment with a professional instructor calmly teaching them how to control it instead of in heavy, oncoming traffic with potentially tragic consequences for making a mistake."
Teens talking to teens
A peer-to-peer approach, in which teens deliver the safe driving message to other teens, has been most widely applied in Texas.
In 2001, San Antonio saw a startling rash of teen crashes - 10 teens killed in four crashes during a six-week period. "The knee-jerk reaction was, 'They must have all been drunk,' " says Russell Henk, a senior research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. "But alcohol was not involved in a single crash. I have two kids of my own, and I was just getting sick to my stomach."
Henk wanted to try a peer-to-peer approach in which teens work together to educate themselves on safe driving instead of having the message come from adults. He started Teens in the Driver Seat (TDS) at San Antonio's Taft High School, focused on the top risks for young drivers: nighttime driving and driving fatigue, speeding, distractions, driving unbuckled and drunken driving.
TDS has expanded to more than 500 high schools, reaching more than 500,000 teens. The number of fatal crashes involving 16- to 19-year-olds in Texas has dropped every year since 2002 - the only state where that has occurred, Henk says. Counties with TDS programs have seen a 14% drop in teen fatal and injury crashes compared with counties without the program, he says.
Loly Valdez, 43, of Houston has had two sons in TDS at Houston's Cypress Falls High School: Bryan, 19, completed it as a senior last year; Thomas, 17, is a junior in it this year. "It's very successful," Valdez says. "When it first started last year, Bryan was already driving. It just helps enforce some of the things that I as a parent tell them. But by being there at the school and among his peers, he wasn't the only one doing it. It wasn't just Mom and Dad saying it. It was here at the school."
Cypress Falls Principal Becky Denton brought the program to her school last year after hearing a presentation about it. "They spoke for five minutes, and I was in," she says. "It's not scare tactics. It's not adults telling their stories but just the day-to-day experience of having students say to one another, 'This is what I expect from you.' I've been an educator for 21 years, and I've had to bury many, many, many students who died senseless deaths from driving accidents.
"Last year was the first year of not having to bury a student."
TDS seeks to build a "culture of safety" at high schools, so eventually students remind each other to buckle up, avoid texting and slow down. "You might hear one of them say, 'I'm the designated texter,' " Denton says. "Seeing the kids really take this and own it is one of the nicest things to watch."
TDS has been adopted in 40 high schools in Georgia, in 10 schools in a pilot program in Johnson County, N.C., and in six schools in Connecticut, Henk says. "About three years ago, we added a junior high-middle school component at about 40 schools," he says. "We're trying to create a safety culture among 10- to 12-year-olds even as they're starting to think about driving. "
Graphic video messages
Some safety groups turn to shocking, sometimes graphic videos showing the dangers of risky behavior such as texting while driving to grab young drivers' attention.
Kaylee Brandt, 17, of Morris, Minn., saw one such video when she attended a National Organizations for Youth Safety summit last fall in Washington. It was AT&T's 2010 11-minute documentary, The Last Text, depicting texts that four young drivers were sending when they died.
The video made an immediate, lasting impact on her. That's "when I knew I was never going to text and drive again," she says. "I totally don't text and drive anymore. I try not to fidget with the radio and things like that, either."
She's spreading the gospel to others. Her organization, the Morris chapter of Minnesota Business Professionals of America (MBPA), showed the video to hundreds of students from around the state this month at a leadership conference in Minneapolis. "I think it's something you have to experience for yourself, and we want to show it to as many other kids as possible."
In some cases, teens produce videos themselves. Kaley Roberts, 16, a junior at East Lyme High School in East Lyme, Conn., won second place in a video competition sponsored by Travelers insurance company.
The 25-second public service announcement videos, some made with smartphones, aim to create awareness about the importance of safe driving by having teens talk to other teens about it. "I think that new media approach works really well," Kaley says. "It's so much more fun and exciting to have fun with your phone, producing 25-second PSAs, as opposed to sitting around writing an essay."