Memorial Day, summer's kickoff, is often seen as a time to think about slowing down, relaxing, spending time with loved ones and taking to the open road for a break.
For families with teens, however, it's got a darker side: teen driving deaths. Memorial Day marks the beginning of what many experts now call the "100 deadliest days" for traffic-related deaths of teens.
During all of 2012, 1,919 teens ages 15-19 died in crashes involving at least one teen driver, with 550 of those teens' deaths (nearly 29 percent) taking place between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to the National Safety Council. It analyzed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Another data analysis tells a similar story: In 2012, 2,823 teens ages 13-19 were killed in crashes, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and 27 percent of those deaths occurred in June, July or August.
What makes these 100 days of summer so deadly? Many factors, including some that may surprise both teens and parents. Thanks to a growing body of research and accident data, however, experts can suggest concrete ways to reduce the fatality risk.
What Makes Summer Time Crash Time?
Teens tend to be on the road more during the summer months, says Kathy Bernstein, senior manager of the teen driving initiatives for the National Safety Council. "And their driving is not as purposeful as it is during the school year," she says. During the school year, teens have to arrive at school at a specific time, leaving less leeway for side trips.
In the summer months, however, the plan for a social outing may change on a moment's notice, she says. So a trip to a nearby park becomes a long-distance trek to a beach, for instance.
"And the probability is they are carrying more passengers in the summer and they tend to be out at night more," she says of teen drivers in summer. They typically have a relaxed curfew as well.
Fatal crashes for teen drivers are most common between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., according to NHTSA. That risk stays high until midnight.
Distractions, Seatbelts and Speed
Parents and teens know that the distractions of cell phones and other electronics are risky business in the car, but they aren't the only hazards. Loud conversations and horseplay among passengers may be even more dangerous than electronics, says Robert Foss, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.
He studied 52 young drivers, ages 16-18 years old, using in-vehicle data recorders that captured audio, video and other information for six months. When passengers are talking loudly, Foss found teen drivers are six times more likely to be involved in an incident requiring an evasive maneuver to avoid an accident. If passengers are engaging in horseplay, the driver is nearly three times as likely to be involved in an incident. The study is published in May in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Even though the study is small, the findings carry an important message, Foss says. "I think the bottom line here, and consistent with what most people already believe, is that you really don't want a young teen to have more than one passenger in the car," he says.
Most states already have restrictions on newly licensed drivers carrying passengers.
''Friends are actually the greatest distractions," says Kelly Browning, Ph.D., executive director of IMPACT Teen Drivers, a nonprofit dedicated to improving teen driving. She also leads California Teen Safe Driving, a project of the National Safety Council and Allstate Foundation.
While seatbelts are second nature to many, not all teens have gotten the message. In 2011, according to NHTSA, more than half of the teen occupants who died in crashes were not wearing a seatbelt. If a driver in a fatal crash did not wear a seatbelt, most teen passengers didn't either, NHTSA says.
In the same analysis, speeding was a factor in more than one third of crashes, NHTSA says.
Having the Talk, Summer Edition
Based on habits that contribute to fatal accidents, NHTSA tells parents and teens to talk about five critical driving practices that can lower fatalities. These are:
- Always wear a seatbelt.
- Don't use a cell phone or text while driving.
- Don't carry extra passengers (Check your state laws; they vary on passenger restrictions. Many experts say newly licensed drivers should not carry any young passengers during the learning phase.)
- Don't speed.
- Don't drink and drive.
Parents may think that it's more acceptable for teen drivers to carry passengers in the summer, Bernstein finds. Parents may see the season as a relaxed time, ''when their teen should have a bit more freedom and time to socialize with friends," she says. Even so, she says, parents should consider the experience level of the teen driver, as well as the state laws regulating passengers, when deciding if their teen should carry young passengers — regardless of season.
Before asking teen drivers to transport younger siblings to summer events, parents should consider how well the siblings get along at home, Browning says. Brothers and sisters who don't get along at home are likely to argue while on the road, she says, and loud in-vehicle conversations are a risky distraction.
Teens may need specific instructions on how to avoid known hazards such as answering a cell phone call while driving. "We tell parents and teens: 'If you can't just ignore the cell phone, turn it off, stick it in the trunk, stick it somewhere where you will not reach for it,'" Browning says.
Parents should not give high school teens unquestioned access to a car, Bernstein says, even if the car is the teen's alone. Instead, she says, parents should insist that teens ask for access each time. When they ask, she says, parents can then find out details about the planned trip.
Parents should also think about the example they're setting with their own driving, Browning says. "If I drive seven miles over the speed limit because I think I can get away with it, and am slugging down a latte and talking on the phone, how can I think my teen driver won't copy me? Parents really need to recognize the importance of their attitude and behavior behind the wheel."
For more safety tips, visit the Allstate Foundation teen driving page or Drive It Home (if a logon is requested, just click "cancel" to proceed to the home page). For information on shopping for the cars that are best for teen driver safety, please read The Best Cars for Teen Drivers.