Let’s Get Serious About Teen Driver Safety

In a world where common sense is becoming harder and harder to find, let me break from the mainstream narrative and attempt to insert some into the subject of vehicle technology and offer an opposing view, specifically as it relates to teen driver safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) just released a study to support how today’s safety technology on newer vehicles can help keep teen drivers safer on the road.

According to recent studies by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), crash avoidance features seem to benefit young drivers more than others. Separate, yet related studies show these systems are associated with larger reductions in the frequency of collision and property damage liability (PDL) claims for drivers under 25 years old than those ages 25 and older.

Numerous articles and blogs were immediately spawned both supporting and promoting the safety benefits and consumer reliance upon technology to keep our teen drivers safe. Parents were quickly being encouraged to drive the older car and give the newer, more technology equipped family ride to their teens.

The primary objective of the IIHS study was to analyze wrecks involving teen drivers between 2016-2019 and intentionally focused on those crashes where specific safety technologies were relevant. Technologies such as front collision warning systems, lane departure, and blind spot-monitoring.

Among their findings after examining various crash scenarios was that these features would have decreased or made those historical teen crashes less severe 41% of the time. They also found these systems would have decreased the likelihood of teen injury by 47% and fatalities by 78%.

That’s all great news but can we get serious for a moment about using this information to promote the purchase of technology equipped vehicles for our teenagers as though that’s the solution we’ve all been waiting for.

At the core of this study is a crash safety perspective more so than a crash prevention perspective. The results, while clearly beneficial from a lifesaving viewpoint, seem limited in actually preventing the crash in the first place. So before we’re tempted to set out on a victory lap over this information, I’d like to offer some facts I believe are relevant to the issue and cautionary in nature to parents who are about to blindly buy into the benefits of placing their teens behind the wheel of cars equipped with these safety features before considering the limitations they possess.

When it comes to the safety of our nation’s teen drivers, we’ve got to stop treating the symptoms of their crash, injury, and fatality epidemic, quit believing that their inexperience predisposes them to crashes as though crashing is just part of the normal learning to drive process, and begin investing in better education and training to empower their success. teen driving safety

Instead, we keep investing in campaigns, legislation and technology thinking if we treat enough of the symptoms, somehow the root of the problem will disappear. The recent uptick in fatality statistics in the last 2-3 years should be all the proof we need to confirm simply trying to change the “outcome” of a crash does little to prevent it. teen driving safety

But more to the point, when it comes to vehicle safety technology, we all have to recognize and understand that when we’re talking about a 3–4000-pound automobile that’s in motion, physics are still physics and technology, as good as it is, can’t defy the laws of motion. teen driving safety

The study itself, just proved this. teen driving safety

It didn’t prevent any of those history crashes, it merely changed the outcome. 

Like any technology that is developed to help humans achieve greater success, they have pre-programmed limitations and before we put our blind trust and faith in their ability to protect us (from ourselves), we need to understand what they do, how they function and exactly what those limitations are. teen driving safety

We must be aware that their purpose is to “assist” the driver, not “fill in” for the driver. The system is not responsible for the outcome of a situation, the driver is—let’s be clear about that.

We all know that if we jump from an airplane at 10,000 feet without a parachute, certain death awaits us. teen driving safety

However, the invention of the parachute gave us technology that could assist us in being successful in jumping from that plane but only if we understand how it functions. If we’re not taught how to properly fold and pack the chute; if we’re not taught how and when to activate or deploy it, it serves no lifesaving benefit. And beyond that, if we’re not taught how to use its control features to guide us to our intended landing destination, it can still lead us into danger that could result in injury or death. Wouldn’t we all agree the greatest safety value is educating and training the jumper on the ground before they leap from that plane? That same practical mentality has to be applied when it comes to understanding vehicle safety technology and systems. serious about teen driver safety

A quick look at one of the systems mentioned in the study provides a good illustration of this.

Lane Keeping Assist (LEA) technology uses the white painted lines on the road to determine whether the vehicle is properly positioned in the lane. If those lines are faded or unrecognizable due to age or inclement weather, the system can’t and won’t function. If you’re trusting in the system to keep you in the lane, clearly, you’re not focused on driving and you’re not checking to see whether the conditions of the lines are sufficient for the system to function properly. If a crash results, where does the responsibility lie? What about Forward Collision Warning (FCW) or it’s sister, Emergency Braking System (EBS)? These devices operate using a radar ball fixed in the lower grille of the vehicle and at a predetermined distance from an object directly in front of the vehicle, begin calculating the “rate of closure” in that limited space between your vehicle the object ahead.

Having owned vehicles with these systems, I can attest to the fact that these radar units require proper alignment to function correctly. The unit on one of my vehicles somehow got out of alignment and while driving late at night on the interstate, my vehicle suddenly and quite unexpectedly, went into a full anti-lock braking engagement. Because the radar unit was misaligned, the target it locked onto was, in reality, a large overhead sign advising of an upcoming exit. The system had no idea that sign was 20 feet up in the air and posed no legitimate threat to me or my vehicle.

Had another car been following me, it may have rear-ended my vehicle when I unexpectedly engaged in an emergency braking application. Meanwhile, since it was aimed at the sky, it was oblivious to the potential threats on the road surface it was designed and intended to protect me from. Had I been blinding trusting that system, I would have been driving with what could only be described as a “false sense of security”. A system that can’t “See” what a driver sees and can’t visually interpret the full scope of the situation has the potential to create a crash rather than prevent one. It’s essential that drivers understand this before engaging in behaviors that become reliant upon them.

Hopefully my point is gaining some traction with some of you and bringing a little clarity to the issue.

If we’re going to continue withholding the education and training our teenagers need and deserve to drive vehicles safely and responsibly without advanced safety technology equipment, what makes any of us think someone will fully educate them on what these systems do, how they function, the precise way in which they “assist” the driver and properly explain those deficiencies or limitations?

Are we instead enabling their lack of attention or ability to be distracted by allowing them to believe these systems will safely correct their mistakes and inattention in any situation?

Do we honestly believe investing in technology yields a greater return than investing in an irreplaceable life and providing them with the tools to drive anything safely and responsibly?

I certainly don’t. serious about teen driver safety

The greatest safety value for crash prevention and reducing risk is a properly educated and trained driver behind the wheel who is focused on their responsibility as a driver.

It’s time to stop treating symptoms! serious about teen driver safety

Daniel Wagner,
Founder, Teen Driving Solutions
I am serious about Teen Driver Safety!