Crash involvement rates for 16-18 year-olds are higher in counties where teens are permitted to drive away from school during lunch. This is the major finding of a recent study by researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Researchers compared lunchtime crash involvement rates at schools in Orange and Alamance, N.C., where open lunch policies are in effect, with rates in Pitt County, where students aren't allowed to drive away from school for lunch. Rates were measured as the number of 16-18-year-old drivers or passengers involved in crashes in which the drivers were 16 or 17, per 1,000 county residents ages 16 to 18 (crashes involving 18-year-old drivers were excluded to ensure that all drivers in the study were high school age). The three counties were selected based on similarities in size, demographics, and geography.
Crash rates during lunch (noon to 2 p.m.) were about 3 times higher in Orange and Alamance counties than in Pitt. There were no differences in the counties' crash rates at other times of day.
Over a 24-hour period, the number of occupants in vehicles that crashed in the three counties didn't vary significantly. But occupancy was higher in the lunchtime crashes that occurred in Orange (2.1 people per vehicle) and Alamance (2.3) counties than in crashes at the same time of day in Pitt (1.4).
"This is important because of the wealth of research showing that young drivers' crash rates go up when more teens are riding in vehicles," says Susan Ferguson, Institute senior vice president for research. "Young drivers who go out for lunch often take along their friends, which increases the risks."
The study was conducted in 2002, before North Carolina began restricting the number of passengers in vehicles driven by beginners. Now young beginners aren't allowed to drive with more than one passenger who's younger than 21 and isn't a member of the driver's family.
"As we consider the safety implications of open lunch policies, it's important to note that driving to and from school can be even riskier than driving at lunchtime," Ferguson points out.
An Institute analysis of weekday crashes of 16 and 17 year-olds during the 9-month school year indicates wide variations in crash counts by time of day. During 2001-03 the largest number of crashes (about 166,000 nationwide) occurred from 3 to 4 p.m., when teenagers were leaving school. Another 123,000 crashes occurred during the 7 a.m. hour, as teens were driving to school. A smaller peak (about 69,000 crashes) occurred at lunchtime. No such patterns were apparent during the summer months when teenagers were out of school.