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Many Teen Drivers Don't Think They're Inexperienced

But a lack of experience can be deadly, say authors of a new survey

TUESDAY, May 6 (HealthDay News) -- America's teen drivers often underestimate their level of driving experience, putting them at risk for accidents and injuries, a new study finds.

And while many teens recognize that drinking and driving don't mix, many don't recognize other hazards, such as the distraction posed by having friends in the car.

"We listened to teenagers all around the country to try to get a sense of what they believe made a difference to safety in cars and what they were actually exposed to," said lead researcher Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg, from the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "People don't normally go to teenagers and get their viewpoint," he said.

One factor making a difference in whether or not teens will be safe in cars is how they gauge their experience behind the wheel, Ginsburg said. "Teenagers are not recognizing themselves as inexperienced drivers. They are really viewing experience as something that is solved by getting a driver's license," he said.

But lack of driving experience continues to play a major role in teen injuries and fatalities among new drivers. In 2004, 4,767 U.S. teens died from injuries caused by car crashes and, in 2005, almost 400,000 teen drivers and passengers sustained injuries severe enough to require treatment in an emergency room, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"Kids need to learn to take one step at a time as their skills build, and until their skills build, they need to protect themselves from distractions that can really make people unsafe in cars," Ginsburg said.

The report was published in the May issue of Pediatrics.

In the study, Ginsburg's team surveyed 5,665 high school students about their attitudes to 25 risky driving situations, as part of the National Young Driver Survey: Teen Perspective and Experience With Factors That Affect Driving Safety.

Sixty percent of the young people interviewed said that driving experience was very important, but only 15 percent said they personally hit the roads with inexperienced drivers. "And yet everyone they are driving with is virtually inexperienced," Ginsburg noted.

"There is no shame or disgrace in being inexperienced. It's just a fact of life," Ginsburg said. "Until you gain that experience, everything is more dangerous," he said.

Driver distractions mixed with inexperience are dangerous, Ginsburg added, and "alcohol mixed with inexperience is truly deadly," he said.

In addition, only 10 percent of teens recognized that having passengers in the car was potentially hazardous, but nearly two-thirds (64 percent) said they often traveled with other teen passengers. Many more believed that only passengers who "act wild" or "dance or sing" posed a risk.

Most teens didn't think cell phones were risky, unless they evoked certain strong emotional responses.

The researchers also found differences among subgroups of teens. For example, white teens tended to think speeding was less risky (although it commonly occurred) compared to black or Hispanic youths.

However, black and Hispanic teens viewed drinking while driving as less risky than white teens did. And more black and Hispanic teens said that their peers sometimes drank while driving, compared with white teens.

There is a solution for inexperienced drivers, Ginsburg said. "That solution is graduated driver's licenses, where exposures to dangerous situations are minimized while teens continue to gain experience," he said. "Making sure the kids learned one step at a time, until they gain experience, will save many lives."

Graduated driver's licenses limit teens from driving during certain times of the day or carrying young passengers. These restrictions can be state-mandated or enforced by parents, Ginsburg said.

Listening to teens can help in learning how to communicate better with them, Ginsburg added. "When we know how teenagers think and we use their understanding of what is dangerous to help them understand how to be safer, we might get our messages across much more effectively," he said.

Another expert agreed.

"Parents of teen drivers often finding themselves saying to them: 'What were you thinking?'" said Dr. Karen Sheehan, medical director of Injury Prevention and Research at Children's Memorial Hospital and medical director of Injury Free Coalition for Kids in Chicago.

"Thanks to this paper, we are beginning to understand how teens perceive risk of motor vehicle crashes," Sheehan said. "By better understanding the teens' perspective, we can develop safe teen driving messages and interventions that resonate with teens," she said.

More information

For more on teen driving, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Kenneth R. Ginsburg, M.D., Center for Injury Research and Prevention, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia; Karen Sheehan, M.D., medical director, Injury Prevention and Research, Children's Memorial Hospital, and medical director, Injury Free Coalition for Kids, Chicago; May 2008, Pediatrics

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