For decades, driving has been the number one cause of death for teenagers in America.  Yet when you consider everything that has been done to reduce these deaths, it’s difficult to understand how that statement can remain true today even though it does.

Without question, the death tolls in the vehicle crashes we’ve been discussing have dropped by almost half in the last 35 years or so.  In the late 1970’s, the fatality numbers (albeit inclusive of 13-15 year olds) were just under 10,000.  Ten years later they had dropped to 6600 and by the late 1990’s, fatalities declined further to around 5700.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the number of crash related deaths (inclusive of 13-15 year olds) dropped below 5000 in any given year.  While the number is still staggering, it does represent a 50% reduction from 30 years prior.  Since the Driver Education programs hadn’t changed much in that same period, something obviously had a significant impact in these numbers. 

Most likely these fatality reductions are attributable to innovations in vehicle design and safety technology.  Vehicle manufacturers have without question, made serious advancements in the safety features of vehicles with improved crush zones, front and side air bags, ABS braking systems, better suspensions and steering systems and a host of other improvements.  Tire manufacturers have also made huge improvements in the safety designs of their products.

So it stands to reason that the advancements in safety technology played a significant role in saving thousands of lives each year between the mid 1970’s and the present.  However, it is doubtful technology will ever build a death proof vehicle.  So while the automobile industry has certainly done their part by producing safer vehicles, the rest of us must still do our part and become safer drivers.

Additionally, groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.) have made a huge impact in promoting public awareness for the dangers and consequences of drinking and driving.  M.A.D.D. successfully lobbied Congress to change our nations drunken driving laws and tough standards were implemented.

In 1982 for example, 895 teens aged 16-17 were killed in car crashes and 368 (41%) of those were legally drunk.  That same year, 2561 teens aged 18-20 were killed and 1458 (57%) of those were drunk.  By comparison, in 2007, 772 teens aged 16-17 were killed and only 137 (18%) were drunk.  Similarly, for teens aged 18-20, 1939 were killed and only 615 (32%) were legally drunk.  These are serious reductions in alcohol related deaths in only 25 years.

Hopefully you’re beginning to see a pattern develop here.  Teenagers today are not much different than teenagers from the 1970’s, 1980’s or the 1990’s.  According to scientific studies, their brains are not developing any faster today than they did 30 years ago.  They face the same issue of feeling invincible and teen drivers still lack experience their first few years of driving.

Obviously, we’ve improved the safety standards of today’s vehicles which have dramatically improved a driver’s chance for survival in severe crash situations.  We’ve increased public awareness for the dangers of driving drunk and implemented campaigns and laws to reduce these types of crashes.  But our education system for training new drivers remains the same.

Therefore, the case for improving driver education strengthens even further.  On one hand, making vehicles safer did nothing more than protect some people from their own poor judgment and otherwise deadly mistakes.  But the accomplishments of M.A.D.D. (and other similar groups) proved that education made a huge difference and prevented many from making bad decisions.

Coming up in Part IV of this series, we’ll consider the effects of the new Graduated Driver License restrictions and attempt to determine just how successful these laws have been on reducing vehicle fatalities.