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January 14, 2011

News & Features

Hidden dangers: New findings on teen-driving risks

New York Times News Service

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(iStock)

Eric Everett never sends a text message while driving. Too risky.

And does he think his 2001 pickup truck -- a hand-me-down from his dad and, more recently, his brother -- is dangerous? No way.

"It rides nice," says Everett, 16, a junior in high school in Houston. "I think it's safer than a car, because if a car hits you, you're more likely to be OK," he says.

It's a common perception, but a new study suggests otherwise.

Chandra Bhat, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, used national data to look at the severity of injuries to teens in auto accidents in relationship to factors such as the time of day, number of passengers and type of vehicle.

The study also looked at aggressive driving behaviors -- defined as deliberately unsafe behavior, such as weaving in and out of traffic, cutting people off, speeding, tailgating or running a light -- and their correlation with crashes.

Some of the findings were no-brainers: Drinking and driving is the deadliest combination for teen drivers. Others were more surprising, and even conflict with conventional wisdom about what's dangerous for teens.

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Memphis teenager Mackenzie Leake, 17, drives her car around town last October. (Mike Brown / The Associated Press)

Among those findings is that driving a pickup truck puts teens, especially 16- and 17-year-olds, at far higher risk of injury than driving a car, Bhat says.

"Most of these pickup trucks, they have a very powerful engine, and a powerful engine capability appears to lead to aggressive driving behavior when the pickup is in the hands of a teenager," he says.

Pickups, especially older models, also may lack the safety features of a sedan, he says.

The study, published in the traffic-safety journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, contained a few other surprises:

• Driving with one young passenger is riskier than alone or with two teen passengers, perhaps because the young driver feels a duty to entertain a solo passenger. Some state programs allow only one unrelated passenger in the car with a driver under age 18. In Washington state, no unrelated passengers under age 20 are allowed during the first six months teens have their licenses.

• Drivers are most aggressive during the morning rush hour, as they hurry to work or school. Teen drivers account for 15 percent of miles traveled to and from school, but more than half of injuries and fatalities in school-related travel, Bhat says. Evidence that teen body rhythms leave them sleepy in the hours just after dawn could also help explain that, he says.

• Even one year can make a difference: 16- and 17-year-olds are more likely to drive aggressively than those 18-20.

Teen drivers know the risks. And, at least when they talk to adults, they say they don't take any.

"Driving drunk, I don't do that," says Nikko Hacopian, 16, a junior in high school in Houston. "Driving with too many kids, I don't do."

Nikko, who drives a 1995 Ford Bronco, says he isn't allowed to drive after 11 p.m. and never takes more than two passengers.

"More kids, more chances of something bad happening," he says. "We're teenagers."

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