Inexperienced, inattentive and young: New drivers cause many accidents

Young drivers cause a disproportionate number of Minnesota car accidents.

Charley Bruce

Young drivers are contributing more than their fair share of accidents in Minnesota and elsewhere.

Bruce Simons-Morton, chief of the Prevention Research Branch of the National Institutes of Health, spoke at the Radisson Hotel last Thursday about the problem of teenage drivers: They’re accident-prone when they get their licenses and for years after.

He said no matter the age drivers get their license, they’re a higher risk for a crash.

In some European countries, drivers get licenses at 18, but there is still a high accident rate for novice drivers, Simons-Morton said.

In Minnesota, 15- to 24-year-olds make up 17 percent of drivers, but they account for 29 percent of all accidents.

“They’re overrepresented in fatal and life-changing injury crashes. There’s no question about that,” said Lt. Mark Peterson, Minnesota State Patrol public information trooper.

In 2005, about 25 percent of Minnesota’s 559 fatal crashes involved a 15- to 24-year-old, according to the Department of Public Safety.

Peterson said inattentive driving is a major cause of accidents in Minnesota for younger drivers.

In 2005, inattentive driving by 15- to 24-year-olds caused about 14 percent of the accidents for their age group, according to the Department of Public Safety.

Simons-Morton said young drivers cause many of the accidents while talking on a cell phone and driving.

“They’re not as good at dividing attention between the secondary task and having their eyes on the road,” he said.

Simons-Morton said young drivers can lower crash rates by getting on-the-road experience.

“Exposure in transportation is what location is in real estate,” Simons-Morton said.

But the training needs to be, at least initially, under controlled driving conditions: no rain or snow, and not at night, he said.

Simons-Morton said graduated driver licenses are a way to ensure the conditions in which teens drive. These systems are used in states like Wisconsin and South Dakota.

Wisconsin’s graduated license law gives new licensees a nine month probationary period where the new driver cannot have more than one nonfamily member in the car and cannot drive between midnight and 5 a.m.

But Simons-Morton said he admits there are problems enforcing the law by police and parents.

Sammy Korkow, a public relations sophomore, said she grew up in Fond du Lac, Wis., and started driving under the graduated license laws.

She said the system didn’t work because no one obeys it.

“We’d just park cars at restaurants and pack into another,” Korkow said.

She said she would have been in an accident if she hadn’t been disobeying the graduated license law.

Korkow said she had been turning a corner and didn’t see a motorcycle because she was watching a semi-truck. Because her friends in the car yelled “Stop!” she avoided hitting the motorcyclist.

Simons-Morton said passengers in a car change the driver’s behavior.

He also presented other research showing that if two males drive together, they will drive about 5 miles per hour above the average.

“Guys might think I’m going to look wussy if I don’t drive fast,” Simons-Morton said.

If the male driver is with a female, he drives about the average, Simons-Morton said.

“When a girl is in the car, he may have learned females don’t like it,” he said.

Simons-Morton said alcohol also plays a dramatic role in crashes with drivers in their late teens and early 20s.

Also, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, 20- to 24-year-olds received 9,594 DWIs, about 26 percent of the total DWIs issued in 2005.

“It’s the biggest problem of any age group,” Simons-Morton said.