As parents, is there any moment when we feel quite as vulnerable as when we turn over the keys to a newly licensed teen driver for the first time? I’ve done it twice – with sons who are now in college – and the memories are still fresh in my mind.
I know from personal experience that there is no time a driver is as likely to end up in a crash as during those first few months behind the wheel. Driving is a difficult skill to learn and with as many distractions as our kids face today, it gets more challenging with every crank of the engine.
Each week we treat several teen drivers in the Emergency Department at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. At least once a week, I get a call late at night – well past the point at which a teenager should be out driving – to assist with a patient who needs surgical care after a crash. Every day of the week we see the typical fender benders, usually among 16-year-olds getting out of school, finishing up practice and cruising home faster than the limit allows. Several of these kids end up with some fractures and lacerations – but they’re the lucky ones.
Arkansas’ rate of deaths from vehicle-related crashes is more than 40 percent higher than the national average. Over the last 10 years, an average of 600 Arkansans have died on an annual basis from motor vehicle-related crashes, and many of those fatalities were among teen drivers.
Luckily, in 2009 our state legislature decided to do something about that. They passed the graduated driver license (GDL) law, which places several restrictions on young drivers, all of which are already helping reduce Arkansas teens’ risks of crashes and fatalities.
It’s hard to argue with a law that is already credited with saving the lives of 32 teens a year in Arkansas. The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) says that’s how big the drop in teen driving deaths was the year after the GDL law went into effect. They estimate a 59 percent decrease in the number of teens killed on Arkansas roads between 2008 and 2010.
The GDL law works to protect teens by creating a safer environment for them to hone their skills. It does this by offering licenses at three levels.
The learner’s permit is for youth 14-15 and allows them to drive only while accompanied by an adult at least 21 years of age. To upgrade to the next level, an intermediate license, those with a learner’s permit must not have any serious traffic violations or accidents in the previous six months.
Once teens achieve an intermediate license, they can drive without an adult, but they are not allowed to have more than one passenger under the age of 21 who isn’t related to them. In addition, teens with an intermediate license can’t drive between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. unless they are going to or from a school- or church-related event, work or are in an emergency situation. These restrictions have helped eliminate two of the biggest risks that teens face behind the wheel: distractions and exhaustion.
The data from ACHI show that these two components of the law have helped us make strides in saving lives. They recognized a significant decrease in crashes by number of occupants after the law went into effect. In addition, ACHI’s research indicates that between 2008 and 2010, fatal crashes involving teen drivers during those late hours of 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. dropped by 76 percent.
Once they turn 18, drivers can apply for a regular, unrestricted license as long as they don’t have any major traffic violations during the previous year.
Parents can also make a big difference in how safely their teens drive. Talk to your teens about why they should wear their seat belts. I always tell families that I would much rather repair something hurt in the abdomen from a seat belt than support a patient as they try and recover from a severe head injury due to not wearing a seat belt. According to the Injury Prevention Center at ACH, in 2008 more than half of the teens killed in motor vehicle crashes weren’t wearing their seatbelts. Those with younger kids can model that behavior for them now and set a good example by buckling up on every car ride.
Also remind your teen to put down the cell phone when the car is on. You want their eyes on the road and their hands on the steering wheel. This means don’t call and don’t text, e-mail or use apps while driving. All teens in Arkansas are restricted from using cell phones behind the wheel except in emergency situations.
And it should go without saying that no one should ever sit in the driver’s seat if he or she has been drinking alcohol or taking drugs. Nearly a quarter of the car crashes that result in teen deaths involve alcohol. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Many parents don’t realize that their kids have to comply with the graduated driver license restrictions when they start driving. There have been complaints that the guidelines are inconvenient for parents.
But really – isn’t a minor inconvenience worth it when the lives are of 32 teens are saved each year? I certainly think so.
Sam Smith, MD, is surgeon in chief at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He writes a column each week covering a variety of kids’ medical concerns. If you have a topic you’d like him to consider addressing, email