Teen drivers have always been at greater risk of accidents than more mature drivers.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), “the fatal crash rate per mile driven for 16-19 year-olds is nearly 3 times the rate for drivers ages 20 and over.”
And now we’re dealing with an added driving complication: the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. The viral outbreak is having an interesting impact on drivers in general and on teenage drivers in particular. Today’s drivers are more anxious, are driving to and from vacation destinations instead of flying, and are failing to disinfect their vehicles regularly. Then there’s the fact that many driving students have been unable to complete the standard driver’s ed requirements due to restrictions on face-to-face interactions during the pandemic.
Despite all this, an impressive 81% of parents of teen drivers say that they trust their teen to drive safely according to a recent survey conducted by Aceable.
With National Teen Driver Safety Week (October 18 through October 24) on our minds, we want to explore driving safety for teens during the pandemic. What makes teens risky drivers? How is the coronavirus impacting their transition from student driver to licensed driver? And what can parents do to promote safe driving practices for their teens in the age of COVID-19?
The Coronavirus is Creating Additional Concerns for Drivers
Before we discuss teens specifically, let’s look at a few of the ways COVID-19 has created additional concerns for drivers in general.
The Aceable survey found several interesting coronavirus-related driving issues:
74% of Americans say that, due to COVID-19, their next vacation will be by vehicle rather than by plane. This increased vehicle travel, particularly over the holidays, could potentially result in more accidents than we would see in a normal year when Americans prefer to travel by plane over long distances. Fatigue can be particularly dangerous on these long-distance trips. The NHTSA reported over 91,000 drowsy driving crashes in 2017 alone.
20% of drivers say that the COVID-19 crisis has made them a more anxious driver. Living in the age of the pandemic has had adverse psychological effects on most of us. The Coronavirus presents a constant stressor in our lives. Only a few months into the pandemic, Dartmouth College found a notable increase in the anxiety and depression of college students. These general feelings naturally impact every area of our lives, including driving. Studies have shown that high levels of anxiety can reduce reaction times, and since reaction times are critical on the road, anxiety could be producing worse drivers.
12% of drivers have admitted to drinking and driving since the beginning of the pandemic, and 10% admitted to driving after smoking marijuana. Researchers have found a “staggering” increase in depression and anxiety linked to the coronavirus. And some Americans may be self-medicating with substances that impair their ability to drive safely.
51% of American drivers say that, amid COVID-19, they have not been disinfecting their vehicle. Vehicle safety isn’t only about traffic safety during a pandemic. There is also the risk of contracting the virus from other passengers in a vehicle. Regularly clean your vehicle with disinfectants that contain at least 70% alcohol, and avoid using chemicals like bleach and hydrogen peroxide, which can damage your vehicle’s finishes. It’s also wise to assume that other vehicles you enter have not been disinfected. It’s a good idea to carry disinfecting wipes with you so you can quickly wipe down surfaces of other vehicles.
These additional challenges of driving in the COVID-19 era are making driving more difficult for everyone. But teens are especially vulnerable.
Teens Don’t Always Practice Safe Driving Habits
Unfortunately, teens have an inherent disadvantage when it comes to safe driving: a lack of experience. Teens simply don’t have as much practice operating a vehicle as older drivers. Weather conditions, like rain and snow, create additional risks for teens who don’t yet have a feel for driving on slick roads.
The more teens practice driving, the safer they become, but it takes time. By the time teens turn the corner into their twenties, they’ve gained enough experience to be safer drivers, statistically. This is why we see the risk of fatal accidents drop significantly for drivers over 20 years old.
But inexperience certainly isn’t the only factor preventing teens from driving safely. The CDC’s Motor Vehicle Safety information page cites several additional causes for the increased driving risk of teenage drivers, including:
These factors have impacted teenage drivers (and some older drivers as well) since the invention of vehicles. But today’s teen drivers have additional distractions to contend with. While technological advances in auto safety features have saved lives, technology is also making it more difficult than ever before to drive safely.
In that Aceable study, 46% of parents of teen drivers say that they’ve witnessed their teen driver use their phone while he/she was driving. As you’ve likely personally witnessed on the road, phones constitute a severe driving distraction with potentially disastrous results. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 9% of all fatal accidents for teenage drivers could be attributed to distracted driving in 2018.
But there is also some good news on this front: handheld cellphone use has been trending down over the last decade. In 2009, 7.6% of drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 were guilty of regularly holding their phones while driving. This percentage was down to 3.6% as of 2018.
Laura Adams, a senior education analyst for Aceable, says, “To encourage and enforce safe driving behaviors, parents should consider completing a parent-teen driving contract with young drivers. Creating a written document is an excellent way to explain what’s safe and the types of behaviors you expect your teen to do and not do. Include the consequences of violating the agreement, so teens know what happens if they don’t comply.”
Driver Training May Be Limited Due to the Coronavirus
So teens are already the riskiest driving group due to inexperience and distractions. And with the 2020 outbreak of the Coronavirus, teens may be getting less driving instruction and practice than in previous years. Most U.S. states issued stay-at-home orders of some kind during 2020, which prevented student drivers from attending driver’s ed courses and behind-the-wheel driving instruction.
States like Georgia, Wisconsin, Mississippi, and Texas even waived the practical driving test requirement, allowing new drivers to get a driver’s license without proving their competence behind the wheel.
Luckily, a growing number of states allow driver’s ed courses to be taken online so student drivers can have access to quality driving instruction from the safety of their own homes. These state-approved online driver’s ed courses cover everything that would typically be covered in the classroom instruction of traditional driver’s ed. Americans are generally comfortable with this change. Sixty-eight percent of Americans say that they expect online driver’s education, taken instead of in-person classes, will increasingly become the norm in the coming years.
Most states still require an in-person training component of driver’s ed for the behind-the-wheel instruction, but even this is changing. Texas, for example, is allowing parents to jump in the front seat to handle the behind-the-wheel portion of their teen driver’s training. This parent-taught driver’s ed model gives parents more control over their teen’s driving education. This added control could lead to increased comfort for parents as they get to see their teen’s progress first-hand.
This may be why so many of the parents surveyed trust their teen to drive safely. But what else can you do to help your teen become a safer driver?
Ways to Promote Safe Driving Practices Among Teens in the Age of COVID-19
Here are five of the best ways to help the teens in your life become safer drivers.
1. Set a good example as a licensed driver.
You probably know from experience that kids do as you do, not as you say. Instead of just telling your teens how to be safe drivers, show them. Set a good example by practicing safe driving yourself. Always:
Follow the speed limit
Come to complete stops
Check for traffic at intersections
Watch for pedestrians and bicyclists
Wear your seatbelt
Use your turn signals
Check your mirrors and your blind spots
Keep your vehicle well-maintained
Keep a safe distance behind the vehicle in front of you
Follow traffic signals
Use your headlights in poor weather
Take regular breaks on long trips
Pull over immediately if there’s any reason you’re not able to drive safely
Your actions teach your teens how to behave. So make sure you’re sending the right message with your own driving habits.
2. Choose a reputable online driving school.
If you are unable to send your teen to in-person driver’s ed (or you’re unwilling to send them due to the risk of coronavirus infection), make sure you choose a reputable online driving school. Online driving schools can actually provide a more interesting learning experience than some traditional in-person driving schools. While traditional schools rely on textbooks and lectures, high-quality online driving schools offer multimedia curriculum, which uses images, video, and audio to make learning more engaging.
It’s also worth noting that online driving schools offer more than just driver’s ed. Many online providers also offer defensive driving courses. Defensive driving courses are useful for drivers of all ages who want to brush up on safe driving practices.
Adams notes, "If you or a young driver in your family complete an online driver's education course, it may make you eligible for a significant auto insurance discount, depending on your insurer. Since the cost to cover teen drivers is costly, it's worth asking your insurer about it. Becoming a better driver and saving money is a winning combination for families."
3. Practice driving with your teens.
The only way to help your teens get past their inexperience is to give them more time behind the wheel with your supervision. This experience is invaluable as it gives them a chance for immediate feedback. As soon as you see them doing something incorrectly, you have the opportunity to bring the action to the teen’s attention so they can correct the behavior before it becomes a habit.
Spending more time instructing your teen may give you the added benefit of increased trust in your teen’s driving abilities. The more you see them practicing safe driving, the more comfortable you’ll be with them driving on their own.
4. Limit the number of passengers in the vehicle.
Many states have restrictions relating to the number of passengers allowed in a vehicle with a teenage driver, as well as the ages of those passengers. Teens are generally on their best driving behavior when adults are in the vehicle. And teens are generally at their worst when driving with multiple other teens. As the CDC reports, “The presence of teen passengers increases the crash risk of unsupervised teen drivers. This risk increases with increased numbers of teen passengers.”
So to keep your teen drivers as safe as possible, limit the number of passengers in the vehicle. Depending on your state laws, your teen may even be prohibited from driving with other people under the age of 18 for a set amount of time.
5. Minimize distractions.
Passengers certainly aren’t the only distraction for teen drivers. Electronics are one of the biggest driving distractions facing today’s drivers. The best practice is to have electronics strictly off limits for the duration of the trip, even at red lights. Whenever directions are needed, you should enter your destination into your GPS before putting the car in drive.
To avoid the temptation, it’s best to keep devices entirely inaccessible while driving. Even if it means tossing your phone in the back seat or even putting it in the trunk. If you need your device for any reason during the trip, find a place to safely pull over before reaching for the device.
Driving comes with some inherent risks. And during the COVID-19 era, it comes with an additional set of risks. But with some quality driving instruction, lots of behind-the-wheel practice, and some good driving habits, we can all come out of the pandemic as safer drivers.