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Better Driver

92 per cent of teens claim to be safe drivers Add to ...

Teens and summer are often a volatile cocktail, especially when it involves driving.

Results from a new survey show that when it comes to "near misses", speeding, texting and distracted driving account for a high percentage of these incidents. The same survey shows teens are apt to blame everything from the weather to other drivers for these close calls - but not themselves and their inexperience.

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The results of the 2011 Liberty Mutual/SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) teen driving study "gives parents reason to pause before they hand over the keys to their newly freed young driver," according to SADD. The American study was initiated with a series of four focus groups in October 2010 and followed by a survey of 2,294 teens in eleventh and twelfth grades from 28 recruited high schools across the United States in January 2011. It discovered an "alarmingly high" number - 68 per cent of new drivers admit to having "narrowly avoided a crash" and a disturbing tendency to lay the blame elsewhere.

More than half (56 per cent) of the teens who experienced a "near miss" say they have experienced multiple such incidents. "Yet young drivers are more apt to blame external causes such as other drivers or the weather rather than owning up to any personal responsibility in the near-miss," the report says.

More than one-third of them blame other drivers while 21 per cent say the weather was the primary cause. "But," the authors of the report say, "when asked what they were doing in the car at the time of the incident, teens admitted to a rash of distractive or dangerous behaviors: Speeding, 30 per cent; Texting while driving, 21 per cent; Talking to passengers, 20 per cent and changing songs on their MP3 player, 17 per cent."

When asked what was the primary contribution to the near miss, 9 per cent identified excessive speed, 13 per cent said it was texting while driving and 6 per cent admitted that talking with their passengers had distracted them.

There are a few glimmers of good news in the survey. For some young drivers, a close call causes them to re-examine their driving behaviour, albeit briefly. More than half (55 per cent) of those who admitted to a near miss said it made them clean up their act - mostly in terms of paying more attention (44 per cent), text less (26 per cent) and slow down (13 per cent). But 42 per cent admitted that these new behaviours lasted less than a month.

On the other hand, those who were actually involved in a crash, made "significant" changes in their driving habits. Almost 70 per cent of new drivers said the experience changed their habits and 58 per cent said it did so "forever."

While crashes get all the attention, it is the more prevalent close calls "that should serve as a wake-up call to any driver," says Dave Melton, Liberty Mutual's managing director of global safety. "We don't want to wait for the crash to happen before we subscribe to safe driving practices; parents and teens can unite now on a commitment to responsibility behind the wheel."

"The high prevalence of distracted and dangerous driving continues to be a concern, especially as we head into the summer months when the highest number of driving fatalities occurs," said SADD Chairman Stephen Wallace. "We know from past Liberty Mutual/SADD research that teens are behind the wheel 44 per cent more hours each week in the summer (23.6 hours) than during the rest of the year (16.4 hours), adding some urgency for parents and teens to sit down and review their family rules of the road."

And I've saved what might be the best for last. The survey also showed that 92 per cent of teens consider themselves to be safe and cautious drivers. But 12 per cent admit to driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol during the summer months.

Halifax-based Richard Russell runs a driving school.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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