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Crash Rates Don't Tell The Whole Story Of Risky Teen Driving

Teenage drivers have fewer crashes after they've been driving for a while, but new research suggests that a few months behind the wheel doesn't improve their driving skills all that much.

Researchers persuaded 42 newly licensed teen drivers to have data-recording systems installed in their cars — a camera, a GPS, and an accelerometer to measures rapid stops, sharp turns and swerves. They also checked up on how their parents did when driving the same cars.

The idea was to compare the driving habits of novices with those of more experienced drivers under similar conditions.

How did it go? During the 18-month study, the teens experienced 37 crashes and 242 near-crashes, compared to two crashes and 32 near-crashes for the parents.

The accelerometer recorded some of the specific behaviors that were putting teens at risk, such as making 25-30 times as many sharp turns as their parents were.

The teens showed a high rate of accidents and near-accidents when they first started driving, which dropped as they gained experience, a pattern seen in previous studies.

But while the teens got more skilled at keeping their cars dent-free, "they did not improve in risky driving," Bruce Simons-Morton said in a media briefing Thursday. Simons-Morton, the lead author of the study, is a senior investigator at the Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The findings were published online by the American Journal of Public Health.

It's unclear whether the drivers continued their radical ways because they didn't know how to handle their vehicles or because they liked the way that type of driving feels.

Either way, they are putting themselves at risk for an accident by decreasing the amount of time they have to react to a situation and increasing the chance that they'll lose control of the car.

Simons-Morton noted that the degree to which a driver engages in these risky driving behaviors seems to be a good predictor of who will have a crash in the near future (that's the subject of a follow-up study not yet published). But unfortunately, teens are unlikely to adopt more cautious habits even after they've had an accident.

Learning to steer, brake and check rear-view mirrors only takes a couple of hours. But developing good judgment requires time, an exposure to a wide variety of situations and — more often than not — the exercise of bad judgment.

"The dilemma is that teens only learn by driving, but the more they drive, the greater the risk," Simons-Morton said.

Most states now have a graduated drivers license program designed to protect brand new drivers from the temptation to speed down the highway at midnight with their cell phone in one hand and a seat full of friends in the back. But the specifics and effectiveness of those programs vary, and some young drivers are finding ways to skirt the system.

Simons-Morton recommended that parents take an active role in their teens' learning process by setting rules that encourage safe driving, like limiting night driving, access to high-speed roads, and the number of passengers allowed in the car. While cruising around town with mom may not be as fun as taking trips with friends, teens can benefit from the guidance and judgment of a more experienced mentor.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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