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Having Their Own Car Causes More Teen Accidents

September 26, 2009

Parenting styles and access to a car of their own makes a substantial difference in the safety of teenagers behind the wheel, according to two studies by researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Teenagers with a car of their own or free use of one are much more likely to be involved in a car accident than those who share a vehicle, the studies found.

Additionally, parents who set firm driving safety rules, but do so in a supportive way, decrease the chances their teen will be involved in a crash by up to 50 percent.  Such positive rule-setting can also decrease rates of drinking and driving, talking or texting on a cell phone while driving, and increase the odds a teen will wear a seatbelt.

Obtaining a driver’s license and car are often seen as a teenage rite of passage, but many parents underestimate the risks.

Auto accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers, killing more than 5,000 in the United States each year. More than 7,000 people were killed in U.S. crashes involving teen drivers in 2007, according to government data.  Of those, more than 3,000 were teen drivers, with some 250,000 teen drivers becoming injured.

However, researchers say their findings can help parents keep their kids from joining these sad statistics.

“With teen drivers, you have to recognize that it’s a public health issue,” said Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, a Phoenix pediatrician who co-authored a report about teen drivers for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The report urges parents to emphasize the significance of driving privileges by having teens to agree to driving contracts pledging to follow appropriate safety rules.

The latest research provides evidence that this type of hands-on parenting is effective.

“Families need to know that driving is different” from other steps toward independence,” Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston, the study’s lead author, told the Associated Press.

“Just at the time their teen is pulling away, they need to get back involved to spare them heartache.”

The research is based on a nationally representative survey, conducted in 2006, of more than 5,500 students in 9th through 11th grade at 68 U.S. high schools.

The study focused on the approximately 2,000 students who reported driving on their own.  Of those, 70 percent said they had a car of their own or were the primary drivers of the cars they used.

Winston said the number of teens with their own vehicle or with free use of one is alarming.  That freedom, she said, can generate “a sense of entitlement about driving” that may make them less vigilant.

One quarter of these “main” drivers had been involved in crashes, compared with just 10 percent of teen that shared driving access, the researchers found.

However, the lower crash rate does not indicate less driving time, but is likely due to having to ask for the car keys, something that helps parents monitor their teens’ driving, Winston said.

Compared with teens with uninvolved parents, those whose parents established firm rules and monitored their activities without being overly controlling had half as many accidents, and better driving habits.

These kids were 71 percent less likely to drive while drunk and 30 percent less likely to use a mobile phone while driving than teens with uninvolved parents.

Dr. Niranjan Karnik, an adolescent mental health specialist with the University of Chicago, said the research highlights the importance of parenting styles and graduated teen licensing laws.

The study was released Friday, and is published in the October issue of Pediatrics.

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