Fatal Distraction: Teen Drivers And Passengers Are A Deadly Mix

Studies show that one passenger in a teen driver's car increases fatality risk by 44%, two passengers doubles the risk

Teen driving safety is one of those problems that is easy to ignore: So often the tragedies are spread out throughout small towns around the country. One lost life here, two lost there. We don't often piece all those crashes together and realize what's happening to our children.

Sometimes to get change, you need a tipping point. Maybe this week will be it: Since Sunday, 15 teenagers have died in major car accidents around the U.S. Six died after crashing into a pond in Ohio. Five died when they crashed into a tanker truck in Texas. Four died when they crashed into a creek in Illinois.

And that's just the crashes that were major and notable enough to make national news. One teen in Colorado died Sunday when the teen driver of a car he was in crashed into the side of a mobile home. Three died in Indiana when the drivers, in two trucks, ran stop signs and collided head-on. A 15-year-old driver in Maryland died when he was fleeing police in a car. And there are others, many which don't make the news. Crashes that don't end in fatalities but left serious damage: traumatic brain injuries, crippling spinal cord issues.

"The numbers are so small and spread out geographically," said Timothy Hollister, a teen driving safety advocate in Connecticut whose book, "Not So Fast: Parenting Teen Drivers Before They Get Behind The Wheel", comes out in September. "It's only when you put the numbers together nationally that people even begin to take notice."

Driving is the No. 1 killer of teens in this country, accounting for about 25 percent of teen deaths each year. About 3,000 to 5,000 teens die annually in car wrecks, enough to fill the halls of a large high school. Or two.

Recently, the Governor's Highway Safety Association release preliminary figures for 2012 that show a troubling trend: After 10 years of declining, teen driving deaths are on the rise.

Although teen crashes seem random and unpredictable, they actually often follow a predictable pattern: It's likely a group of teens heading nowhere in particular, probably late at night, and going fast. Often, they're not wearing seatbelts.

Researchers have identified the dangerous habits of young drivers, who can't ever be considered safe behind the wheel because they are simply too novice. There's a common thread for many fatal crashes: More than one passenger in the car, especially if those passengers are male.

The Passenger Effect

A study released last year by AAA said passengers have a huge impact on fatalities: Fatality rates went up 44 percent with one passenger under 21 years old, doubled with two passengers, and quadruples when carrying three or more passengers who are under 21 years old.

Many graduated drivers license (GDL) laws regulate how many passengers teens can have in the car before they are awarded a full license. Parents who are concerned about their teens behind the wheel want to pay close attention to this rule: Make sure your teens are driving alone mostly, with no more than one passenger. Don't let them carpool to and from school events. Don't let them head out for the evening with a bunch of other teens in one car. Remember that other passengers are a huge distraction that can turn into a fatal distraction.

Laws regarding passengers in vehicles driven by teens are "the single least enforced and most ignored rule," Hollister said. "It's the one piece that could make a difference. That's parents putting convenience ahead of safety, and not understanding the dangers that every passenger in a teen driver's car adds an additional risk."

Parents, studies show, are the biggest influence on teens and how they drive. So be strict, mom and dad. Your teen's life is at stake.

See more:

What Parents Can Do To Keep Teen Drivers Safe

Teen Drivers Make Common And Fatal Mistakes

Think Driving Schools Make Safer Drivers? Think Again

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