Passengers increase peril in teen driving

Fatal crash is 3 times more likely in carful of youths, study finds

March 22, 2000|By Jonathan Bor and Diana Sugg | Jonathan Bor and Diana Sugg,Sun Staff

A study of teen-age drivers has confirmed what many parents suspect: The more friends in the car, the greater the risk that the driver will crash and die.

By the time a 16- or 17-year-old has three passengers in the car, the chance of getting into a fatal crash is three times greater than if the teen had been driving alone. Boys who carry passengers increase their risk even more.

Johns Hopkins School of Public Health researchers said the findings, reported in today's Journal of the American Medical Association, support the notion that states should restrict teen-age drivers from carrying young passengers until they gain experience. Nine states have such provisions.

Maryland does not have such a law, though the General Assembly is weighing legislation that would bar teen-age drivers from carrying more than two friends.

"When a teen driver is behind the wheel and everybody piles in, that car in effect becomes a rolling party barge," said Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Bronrott had sponsored a House bill proposing restrictions, but he withdrew it after hearing from some unlikely opponents, parents eager to relinquish their time behind the wheel.

"They said, 'What about double dating? What about after school when my son is driving his buddies home from soccer practice?'

"A few parents said that it's going to mean that they're going to have to be chauffeurs longer. They were looking forward to handing over the keys to their kids," said Bronrott.

A Senate bill restricting passengers is under consideration.

Leading cause of teen death

Car crashes are the leading cause of death among teen-agers in the United States, accounting for a third of deaths among people ages 15 to 19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1998, about 5,600 teen-agers died in motor vehicle accidents.

About the same number of deaths occur among teen-age passengers as among drivers. Almost two out of every three teens who died as passengers in 1998 were in cars driven by other teens, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which participated in the study.

Distraction and foolishness

Dr. Li-Hui Chen, a researcher with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said the study did not examine why teen-agers drive more dangerously when others are in the car. But she speculated that passengers might distract drivers and encourage them to do foolish things.

"Passengers might encourage them to run red lights and speed," said Chen, lead author of the study. "It's possible they will talk to the driver, so the driver is not concentrating."

Researchers, who examined data from three federal sources, found that the risk of getting into a fatal accident is 39 percent greater when a 16-year-old driver has one passenger than when the driver is alone. It is 86 percent greater with two passengers. The rate almost triples with three passengers.

The risks are greater for 17-year-old drivers. The risk is 48 percent higher with one passenger, 2.6 times higher with two and three times higher with three.

By contrast, adults seem to drive more safely when carrying passengers.

"The passengers actually reduce the risk," said Chen. "I guess that since they are more experienced and more mature, the passengers might help them look out for the road and might not encourage them to do something that is risky."

Maryland is one of many states that have instituted a graduated licensing system. As of last July, a beginning driver must hold a learner's permit for a minimum of four months, rather than two weeks. To get to the next level, a provisional license, drivers must turn in logbooks showing they practiced 40 hours with a licensed adult.

Drivers must hold the provisional license for 18 months, up from one year. They aren't permitted on the road between midnight and 5 a.m.

In the General Assembly, the legislation limiting teen passengers is far from a sure thing. No action has been taken on the Senate bill, but a House committee voted yesterday to strike the passenger restrictions from another bill.

Part of that House bill survived: Everyone in the car must be buckled up when the driver is "provisional." (According to current Maryland law, if you're 16 and older in the back seat, you don't have to wear a seat belt.)

More action called for

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said that is not enough.

"Just because you're buckled up doesn't mean you're not a distraction and doesn't mean that the driver is not going to want to show off because you're present," said Julie Rochman, a spokeswoman for the institute.

"It's that culture that we're trying to to change, the culture that takes place in a car full of teen-agers -- blaring music, drag racing, tailgating, showing off, speeding."

The Hopkins researchers did not find that alcohol was a major factor behind the group dynamic in a car full of young people. The study did not directly examine the role of alcohol, but it found that a packed car increased a young driver's risk by the same amount day and night, even though people drink far less in the daytime.

"Although alcohol use by young drivers is clearly dangerous, it is apparent that the contribution of alcohol to crashes pales in comparison to inexperience, impulsiveness and poor judgment by drivers, and distractions by passengers," said Robert Foss of the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.

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