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Four ways to prevent teen car crashes

By Deborah Kotz
Boston.com / April 13, 2011

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Think teen car crashes are all about reckless driving, running stop signs or inexperience navigating icy Boston streets? Think again. It turns out about three-quarters of serious car crashes are caused by one of three errors: failing to scan the roads; driving too fast; or getting distracted by something inside or outside the car, say, a ringing cellphone or a friend passing by on the street, finds a new study from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"What we found is that the vast majority of crashes occur because teens are inexperienced," says Allison Curry, an epidemiologist at CHOP who led the study, which was funded by State Farm Insurance. "That first six months or 500 miles of driving is a crucial time when teens are at highest risk for having accidents."

And there's a lot parents can do to hone their teen driver's skills and help keep them safe. Curry suggests the following.

1. Teach road scanning. "It comes automatically to experienced drivers, but scanning is actually a teachable skill," says Curry. Parents who drive with their teen can start by asking questions like: What's happening a few cars ahead? Do you see the light turning yellow? What's the car doing behind you? (A little back-seat driving from a parent never hurts.)

Parents in the driver's seat can narrate while they drive, pointing out, for example, what they do when a car quickly darts in front of them from the opposite lane or is attempting to merge on a highway.

2. Talk about the need for speed control. Teens need to be reminded to check for speed limit signs -- especially on highway exit ramps and in construction areas. They also need a rule of thumb for driving in inclement weather where it may be downright dangerous to drive at the speed limit. And teens may not realize that they may need three times as much distance to, say, stop at a red light on a snowy street than they normally would.

3. Set firm rules for electronic devices. Cell phone off while driving, no exceptions. Massachusetts law prohibits any cell phone use by drivers under 18, and texting by drivers of any age. And if the radio is distracting, turn it off.

4. Put them on six months probation. Even after teens get their full unrestricted license, they probably need about six months to become experienced drivers. Parents can set limits even when there are none imposed by their state, points out Curry, such as no more than one friend in the car or no driving at night. The rules for teen drivers in Massachusetts already prohibit new drivers from having passengers under 18, except for siblings, and driving late at night.

Note: This article originally appeared on Boston.com's health blog, The Daily Dose.

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