For many teenagers, a big perk of getting a license is to ferry themselves, and maybe their friends, to and from school instead of relying on Mom or Dad or a bus. New Institute research shows that allowing students to chauffeur themselves to school may be riskier than parents and school administrators realize.
"Fatal crashes involving teen drivers' risky practices like speeding, drinking, and late-night driving grab the headlines, while the less severe crashes that occur during school commute times haven't attracted similar attention. Still they're a big part of the teen crash problem," says Anne McCartt, Institute vice president for research and an author of the study.
The researchers collected data on crashes from September 2001 to August 2004 in Fairfax County, Va., a Washington, D.C., suburb that has the largest public school system in the state. A main finding was a spike in crashes during morning and afternoon school commute times. This is when about 30 percent of the weekday crashes of 16 and 17 year-olds occurred during the school year. Fourteen percent occurred from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m., and 17 percent more occurred between 2 and 3 p.m. Two percent of the crashes occurred from midnight to 6:30 a.m., and 67 percent occurred at other times.
For a snapshot of the characteristics of the school commute crashes, researchers examined police reports of collisions involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers. These collisions were more likely than those at other times to involve multiple vehicles driven by teenagers.
"The students were crashing into each other," McCartt points out.
Crashes during commute times occurred more often near high schools. Thirty percent occurred within a half-mile of a school, compared with 11 percent of teens' crashes at other times. These crashes also were more likely to involve a teenage girl behind the wheel instead of a boy.
All of the crashes were serious enough to warrant calls to police. However, the majority didn't involve injuries.
Teen drivers were less likely to have been speeding or drinking before crashes during school commute times, compared with late at night. This suggests that risky behavior isn't as much of a factor as at other times.
"The teens in our study weren't necessarily doing anything risky," McCartt notes. "But a lot of teenage drivers do get on the same roads to go to school at the same times of day, so there's high-volume traffic plus novice drivers at the wheel. Morning crashes might be occurring simply because school starts so early and teens may still be tired. Then as they leave school in the afternoon, they might be talking on cellphones or distracted by friends in the car. We can't really point to one particular factor that's causing these crashes."
Discouraging teens from driving to school "is one way to cut down on crashes," McCartt adds. "Buses still are the safest way. At a minimum school officials should work with police to encourage traffic enforcement around schools, including belt use requirements and enforcement of graduated licensing provisions such as teen passenger restrictions."
The researchers didn't find an increase in crashes involving teen drivers during school lunch periods. Fairfax County has a so-called closed policy, which means students can't venture away from school at lunchtime. Such policies have been shown to reduce crashes (see "Open school lunch policies mean higher crash rates for teens," July 16, 2005).