It comes as no surprise to learn that teens are highly vulnerable to death or injury in vehicle crashes. But a recent major study shows the trend begins much sooner than widely believed - as early as age 12.
A study published in the March issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine shows vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death of both "tweens" and teens, with the risk rising each year from age 12.
The three most significant risk factors identified were failure to wear seat belts, driving with a newly licensed driver and driving on high-speed roads.
The six-year study examined 45,560 serious crashes (resulting in a death) that occurred in the United States between 2000 and 2005, in which eight- to 17-year-olds were passengers. In all, 2½ million young people were involved and almost 10,000 (9,807) of them killed.
The majority (54 per cent) died while driving with a teen driver, and drivers younger than 16 - yes, that is possible in some states - were the most dangerous. Nine states grant learning permits to 14-year-olds and at least 30 others to 15-year-olds.
More than 75 per cent of crashes involving fatalities took place on roads where the speed limit was higher than 45 miles an hour (72 kilometres an hour), and almost two-thirds of the young people were not wearing their seat belts. The study showed other factors to be alcohol and driving on weekends.
Male drivers are at the highest level of risk, and children riding with drivers aged 16-19 are twice as likely to be killed as those riding with drivers aged 25 and over.
Flaura Koplin Winston, the study's chief author and researcher, said the message to parents is really quite simple: "Don't let your teen ride with a teen driver who has less than a year's experience driving. Insist on seat belts."
She also advises parents and teens to find ways to resist peer pressure to ride with other teens.
The study was part of a continuing research collaboration between the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and State Farm Insurance. It was developed to offer evidence-based guidelines for parents and policy makers to help protect this vulnerable age group.
"We saw a clear tipping point between ages 12 and 14, where child passengers became much more likely to die in a crash than their younger counterparts," said Dr. Winston, the founder and co-scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at CHOP. Dr. Winston added that, long before children receive a learner's permit, "they begin to exhibit a pattern that looks more like the high fatality rates we see for teen drivers."
The likelihood of a young person riding in a vehicle driven by a sibling, friend, classmate or teammate is high. The trick for both parent and young person is to make wise decisions about when it is okay to do so. "Knowing the risks can help parents and teens make smart decisions about which rides are safe, and which ones are off-limits," Dr. Winston said.
This study and others have resulted in a list of recommendations to help parents protect their children:
Insist on seat belts, every trip, every time.
Set a good example. Don't drink and drive. Avoid distractions like cellphones. Obey the speed limit.
Set rules about safe passenger behaviour. Discuss what's helpful or distracting to a driver.
Monitor your child's travel. Know where he or she is going, with whom, how they are getting there and when they will be home.
Know and trust the driver. It's not safe for your child to ride with a teen who has less than one year of driving experience.
Dr. Winston is an advocate of primary seat belt laws, graduated driver licensing (GDL) and enforcement. She says GDL regulations should lengthen the learning phase and set restrictions with respect to passengers and night-time driving.
Halifax-based Richard Russell runs a driving school. You can find an archive of previous Better Driver features on globeauto.com