It’s almost autumn, and that means a crowd of new teen drivers is getting behind the wheel to head back to school. Tragically, a variety of hazards awaits these drivers, and many of them will get involved in car accidents over the season. Every year, car accidents claim far too many teen lives. Teen drivers can protect themselves by being aware of the risks and taking steps to ensure that they can safely operate their vehicle.

Back to School Accidents

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

16-19-year-olds have the highest risk of being in a motor vehicle crash out of any age group

The risk of a crash is higher in the first months of receiving a license. The crash rate is three times higher for 16- to 17-year-olds than for 18- to 19-year-olds

2,333 teens in the US ages 16-19 were killed in crashes in 2015

221,313 teens ages 16-19 were treated in emergency departments due to crashes in 2015

The Dangers of Back to School Driving

There are many dangers associated  specifically with back-to-school driving. Early school start times can mean that teens are tired behind the wheel. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimates that about 328,000 traffic crashes each year involve a drowsy or sleep-deprived driver. Fatigued drivers are less alert than they need to be and unable to assess dangers properly. Tired drivers also have decreased reaction times when emergencies occur. Additionally, social media distractions also result in dangerous accidents. Teens unaware of the dangers posed by smartphones assume that they can safely multitask, costing far too many lives. Finally, the general inexperience of teen drivers means that they need to take extra care to avoid accidents.

Teen Driving Safety Tips

  • Get enough sleep – According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, adolescents should get slightly over nine hours of sleep a night for maximized daytime alertness. The AASM recommends that school boards start high school classes later so that teens can get enough sleep. Valerie K. Bostwick, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Economics at the Ohio State University, finds that a 15 minute delay in start times for schools leads to a 26% decrease in late-night teen driver accidents. While the debate about high school start times continues, teens can avoid drowsy driving in the morning by getting at least nine hours of sleep each night.
  • Choose later start times for classes if possible – Getting plenty of sleep is a great start for teen drivers, but it can also be helpful to opt for later class starting times. A recent article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests that students who are on the road a little later in the morning are involved in fewer vehicle accidents. In the study, researchers looked at the morning crash rates for teen drivers in Chesterfield County, VA and neighboring Henrico County, VA. Classes in Chesterfield started at 7:20 am while the school day began at 8:45 in Henrico. The crash rate was 29 percent higher for Chesterfield during the 2009-2010 school year. Results were similar in the 2010-2011 school year when the Chesterfield crash rate was 27 percent higher.

While many teens cannot control the starting time for their school day, some districts provide a degree of class flexibility. Parents and teens can also raise the issue of pushing back the beginning of the school day to administrators. If they have the option, students can make sure they are driving to school awake and alert by choosing a later class starting time.

  • Remove distractions – Being distracted while operating a vehicle can be just as dangerous as drowsy driving. The CDC reports that 3,477 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2015. One moment of distracted driving can result in a disastrous, fatal accident and distractions like electronic devices demand attention that drivers cannot spare. Teens should completely avoid texting, phone calls, social media, or emails while driving.
  • Leave early and don’t rush – The fear of being late to an important appointment or other commitment can tempt even the most experienced driver into speeding. Students who are worried about being late to school may try to rush through traffic, speed, or take dangerous shortcuts for fear of the consequences. It’s important for parents, caregivers, and teachers to talk with teens about the importance of following road safety regulations even if they are running behind schedule. All teen drivers should know to prioritize traffic laws over being late for school. To help combat the threat of speeding, students should carefully time their path to school and leave early every morning. They should anticipate traffic and also give themselves extra time in case of a serious jam or accident.
  • Have a to-do list in case of an accident – In the unfortunate event of an accident, teens should know how to handle the situation. It’s a good idea to keep a to-do list for after a crash in the car, along with insurance cards and other important safety information:
  1. Stay safe! Assess the situation and see if it would be dangerous for you to get out of your car.
  2. Move your car out of traffic if it would not be a risk to yourself. Turn on hazard lights to alert other drivers.
  3. Determine if you or anyone else involved in the crash has sustained any injuries.
  4. Call 911 to report the accident, and if necessary, request emergency assistance. Follow any instructions given by the operator.
  5. Call your insurance company to report the incident and request a tow truck for your vehicle. Follow any further instructions from your agent.
  6. Write down the names and the car insurance information from everyone involved in the crash. Provide your name and insurance information to the police and other drivers.
  7. If you can, take photos with a phone of the crash scene.
  8. Document everything. Write down the names of the police officers, insurance agents, time and date, weather and traffic conditions, a description of the accident, a description of any injuries, the make/model/year of the vehicles involved, and the registration and license plate number of the vehicles involved. This information will be used to fill out the crash report.