Peer program helps reduce teen crashes

AUSTIN, TX "Federal statistics in recent years show a nationwide decline in teen crash fatalities and in young driver-related crashes, but in few states has that decline been sharper than it has been in Texas," says a study by the Texas Transportation Institute, part of the Texas A&M University System.

The study compared Texas to other states with at least five years of graduated driver's license law data.

Graduated licensing refers to levels of increased driving privileges as a motorist gains experience. In Texas, initial limits include the time of day a teen can drive, the ages of passengers allowed in the vehicle and a ban on using devices such as cell phones. Those restrictions apply for the first six months a teenager is legally driving.

More than 5,000 teens die in vehicle crashes nationally each year.

The number of 16- to 19-year-old Texas drivers in fatal crashes from 2002 to 2007 fell by 32.9 percent, more than double the percentage decline in the rest of the country. The other seven states with graduated driver's license laws similar to Texas saw an average reduction of 15.7 percent in fatal crashes involving teen drivers, the study found.

Texas' graduated driver's license law is rated as "fair" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Thirty-three states have laws that get the better "good" rating. But an important factor for Texas is a peer influence program available through schools and other organizations, the study found.

While awareness about the dangers of drinking alcohol and driving are high, the program "Teens in the Driver Seat" helps young drivers teach one another about other high-risk factors such as night driving; speeding and street racing; and distractions like talking on a cell phone and texting, the study's authors said.

"What you have is a really effective one-two punch," Bernie Fette, a research specialist with the transportation institute and co-author of the study, said of graduated licenses combined with the peer program.

The "Teens in the Driver Seat" peer program is now active in 300 Texas schools, reaching more than 250,000 teenagers. The program offers schools and teens items like T-shirts and videos to get their projects started and helps them develop messages through radio announcements and podcasts.

The study found that the decline in teen fatal crashes in Texas "is happening in spite of two major obstacles," which it said are the lack of an on-the-road test for new drivers and the option of parent-taught driver's education, which is associated with higher fatality rates than other driver education programs.

Texas is the only state without a road test for new drivers. It did away with the test in 1995, but new legislation will resume the test for drivers 18 and under on Sept. 1.

But Texas' peer influence program is a positive force, according to the study. The program provides structure but gives teenagers the flexibility to develop their messages for their peers, said study co-author said Russell Henk, senior research engineer at the institute.

He said a challenge for Texas will be to continue to keep the program fresh and inviting for young drivers.

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