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Teen Driver Safety

The 100 days that fill the gap between Memorial Day and Labor Day may be known as some of the most fun for teens, who spend their summer breaks traveling from one destination to the next, but for public safety experts, those 100 days signify something much different.

For public safety experts, those 100 days represent the most dangerous, or deadliest, days for teen drivers. The Michigan State Police Office of Highway Safety Patrol’s latest campaign is taking aim alongside AAA — which created the nationwide campaign — to educate teen drivers and decrease the risk they face on the road.

“Here in Michigan we’re using social media to reach these young people and their parents. Through Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, we’re sending social media messages to reach out and help educate these teens to become safer drivers and to make fewer risky choices,” said Office of Highway Safety Patrol Communications Manager Kendall Wingrove.

Motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 killer of teens nationwide, Wingrove said, adding that 129 teens ages 15-20 died from car collisions in 2019. Preliminary data compiled by MSP’s Traffic Crash Reporting Unit shows 13 teens ages 15-20 have passed away since Memorial Day this year.

Adding to that statewide overview, a press release from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety indicates more than 8,300 people have died between 2008 and 2018 in car collisions that involved teens during the 100 most dangerous days.

The reason teen drivers are at such greater risk over their adult counterparts can’t be boiled down to just one risk factor.

“It’s things like inexperience, critical decision errors, distractions, nighttime driving (and) low seatbelt use. There’s no one single thing, just a variety of all these factors,” Wingrove said.

Michigan Auto Law attorney Brandon Hewitt echoed the risks that inexperience can pose for teen drivers.

“The understanding of how even a slight increase in speed can affect the impacts of a crash; their lack of experience in understanding traffic patterns; understanding and perceiving speeds of other vehicles,” he said. “It really comes down to a lack of experience and appreciation for how dangerous vehicles are.”

But Troy Police Sgt. Meghan Lehman might argue those points. As one of the first municipalities in metro Detroit to pass a distracted driving ordinance back in 2009, she said her department commends young drivers in the city for their attention to safety, particularly now, when school, activities and other structure is somewhat shaken by the pandemic.

“Compared to previous years, we’re seeing less risk taking and dangerous driving among teens,” she said.

The summer isn’t over quite yet, so the statistics aren’t in for 2020. But in 2019, the Troy Police Department issued 543 citations and warnings for distracted driving to drivers of all ages.

And the offenders often aren’t who you would think.

“On the whole, distracted driving remains a problem. We mainly see adults — experienced drivers — using texting and driving,” Lehman explained. “Teens have received more education about distracted driving and understand the risks. In some cases, teens could give their parents some advice.”

Tom Mitchell, the lead instructor at Top Driver Driving School in Farmington, said he teaches his students about the 100 dangerous days and how to avoid the potentially fatal risks.

The biggest risk factor Mitchell finds with his students these days is cellphone use on the road. He teaches his students that even though they’re paying attention, they’re still vulnerable if another driver is on their phone and not paying attention. With higher traffic volumes today and more people in a rush to get from point A to B, he reminds his students that “you really have to be focused all the time.”

Mitchell said he also teaches his students about the distractions caused by having food in the car, having too many passengers and daydreaming. He keeps them updated on new safety features in vehicles and how they should be used.

“You have all kinds of distractions in a car on a daily basis. You could just be driving two or three miles and you could be distracted the entire time.”

The COVID-19 pandemic adds yet another factor Wingrove and Hewitt are anticipating will have a number of impacts on the data surrounding the 100 deadliest days.

It may be too early for Wingrove to predict exactly what outcomes will be seen, but he noted that despite there being fewer crashes this year, the severity of the crashes has kept the fatality rate pretty close to equal that of last year.

There’s also a false perception that fewer cars on the road means it’s OK to drive faster, Hewitt added. As teens are no longer cooped up inside under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Safer at Home order, Hewitt believes their pent up energy and the lack of traffic may leave teens “feeling emboldened to drive faster.”

In Troy, that has actually turned out to be true, Lehman said. With most people working from home, overall traffic volume remains down, and as a result, violations and crashes are down too.

“Road patrol officers are still on patrol, and (they’re) ready to address dangerous driving,” she said. “Our focus is always on the violations that lead to crashes, like distracted driving.”

On top of that, Wingrove fears that teen drivers especially, but all drivers, may have inadvertently unlearned some of their good driving habits after being off the road for so long.

Hewitt’s message for teens is simply a reminder to be careful and to know they’re not invincible. For parents, Hewiit has a different message.

“When we ask (teens) if they think their parents drive unsafely or distracted, there’s a great majority who say yes. Teens are learning to drive distracted and speed from their parents,” he said. “Teens don’t want to be preached to, so our best advice to the parents is to model good behavior, have honest talks with your teens, (and) have a driver’s agreement with them that they’re going to be safe.”

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