UA Teen Study Wants to Put the Brakes on Risky Driving

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — University of Alabama researcher Dr. Nancy Rhodes has been studying the lives of teenage drivers for almost five years — she has listened to their stories about road trips, joy rides and tragic accidents.

Rhodes, a research social scientist at the UA Institute for Social Science Research, is conducting a study about newly licensed teen drivers, their parents and what causes risky behavior behind the wheel.

With car fatalities the number one killer of teens in Alabama, Rhodes wants to put the brakes on the dangerous reality facing young motorists.

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“Parents sometimes feel that they’re only needed for the initial learning experience of driving,” Rhodes said. “Once teens get their license, they tend to think their job is over, but parents still have an important role to play in keeping teens safe.”

Many teens experiment with different types of risky behavior, but risk-taking is especially dangerous behind the wheel of a car, and is prominent with high-school age young adults, Rhodes’ studies have shown. Risky behaviors can include taking a curve too fast, being distracted by passengers or talking on a cell phone – behaviors that teens often don’t define as risky, according to Rhodes’ studies.

“Teens can look around them and see everyone else, including their parents, doing things they shouldn’t while driving, such as using a cell phone, speeding or playing with the radio,” said Nita Hestevold, research associate at ISSR, who is also working on the driving research. “They don’t understand that, while this behavior is unsafe for all drivers, younger drivers are less experienced and have not yet automated their driving skills, so the same behaviors put teen drivers at higher risk of crashing.”

In fact, the first six months of a licensed driver is the most dangerous driving period, according to Rhodes. Teens too often associate positive emotion such as the joy of independence with risky behavior like speeding, which makes them more likely to engage in risky acts.

“We’re not trying to take the fun out of growing up and getting a license,” said Rhodes. “We just want to educate the public about the importance of balancing the joy of teen driving with responsibility and safety.”

Rhodes received a five-year, $750,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control for her research that began as a study of drinking and driving. After looking at crash statistics in Alabama through the UA CARE Center, Rhodes noticed similarities in youth accidents.

They discovered that teenage drinking and driving only accounts for 10 percent of teens’ crashes, a finding that made them look more deeply at other risk factors for teens.

“For teens, bad choices are more likely to be made because of teens’ inexperience and social pressures,” Hestevold added.

Surveys, focus groups, interviews and questionnaires from two Tuscaloosa high schools have allowed Rhodes to enter the minds of teens. After talking to numerous individuals about driving, she realized that one possible area for improvement was parent-teen communication.

“In our fifth year, we are trying to use what we have learned to inform state legislators, law enforcement officers, teachers and researchers,” Rhodes said. “But a very promising part of preventing teen crashes is informing parents and the teens themselves about the truth behind why crashes happen.”

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