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Car Accidents Leading Cause Of Teen Deaths

April 16, 2012 12:58 p.m.


Steve Bloch, senior researcher with the Southern California Autoclub.

Officer Brian Pennings, public affairs officer for the California Highway Patrol

Related Story: Car Accidents Leading Cause Of Teen Deaths


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Two San Diego teenagers are in serious legal trouble after a terrible crash on eastbound Highway 52 earlier this month. Police say the 16 year-old driver of 1 car lost control, hit the median, and rolled the vehicle multiple time, and two passengers were thrown from that car and died. The 16 year-old driver and an 18 year-old driving another car face charges of vehicular manslaughter. Investigators say the cars were racing at 100 miles an hour before the crash occurred. There's been a lot of outreach done in San Diego trying to get young drivers to act responsibly behind the wheel. My guests, Steve Bloch, senior researcher with the Southern California auto club. Welcome to the program.

BLOCH: It's nice to be here, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Officer Brian Pennings is with us again, public affairs officer for the California highway patrol. Welcome.

PENNINGS: Thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: Now, officer, you've heard more about driving accidents involving teenagers than you'd probably like to remember. Can you give us an idea of the aftermath of an accident? What kind of personal devastation does it leave in its wake?

PENNINGS: You know, Maureen, to be honest but, when we go to the scene, and we put the piece of the puzzle together worksy document the physical evidence, and we find out exactly what happened. That's the easy part. What comes next is the hard part, is when we deal with the families and the notifications, and we have to explain to them that, you know, their loved one is no longer with us, and there's nothing that we could have done to brought them back. And it's even more devastating when it involves a child, and you have to notify the parents because we're not supposed to bury our children.

CAVANAUGH: And also, not only the victims of these accidents, but the kids who end up in law enforcement, having to pay the price for a reckless action. That also affects their entire life.

PENNINGS: When we put together these pieces of the puzzle, we find out exactly what happened and what not, and imagine if you and I are partners and we go to a tragedy in the scene, and we document it, and we know exactly what happened, and the very next night, and you are out on patrol, and we see somebody doing exactly what caused that fatality, we're not going to have much sympathy for their cause.

CAVANAUGH: What restrictions are there on teenaged drivers that are supposed to help prevent accidents like the one that we have been talking about, that happened just a couple of weeks ago on eastbound Highway 52?

BLOCH: Well, since 1998, there's been a law in California, and what we did was to try to place restrictions that would reduce the risk for teen drivers as much as possible. Get them on the road in the safest possible conditions. And what that does is to specify that when a teen gets a driving permit, he has to drive for at least six months over the permit, and drive 50 hours of that time with a parent or guardian. And once he gets his license, for the first year, there are no passengers allowed in the vehicle, and no driving at night.

CAVANAUGH: So these laws are already on the books, officer Pennings. What are some of the consequences for teenagers if they break these conditions?

PENNINGS: Well, if they break their condition, they're cited for driving outside the provisions, and the judge can take their license plate from them. But we don't make this stuff up. For instance the whole driving late at night, it's been proven that 13% of all teen fatalities happen between 11:00 PM and 5:00 AM. That's why that provision is there. And 65% of all teenage deaths -- I'm sorry, of all teen average deaths occur when another teenager is driving. And our friends at John's hop kin, they did a study like to use if you're 16 years old, and you have one passenger in your car, you are 39% more likely to be killed than driving alone, 86% with two passengers, and 182% with three passengers. And the statistics for 17 year-olds are even worse. If you're 15 years olds, and have three passengers in your car, you're 200% more likely to be killed than driving alone. A parent can be cited as well for letting their teen drive outside the provisions. If a teen, regardless under the age of 18, the parents are civilly and financially responsible for all of their actions. When you see me on the news talking about these consequences, I'm talking about the criminal aspect of it. When you don't see, what you don't realize is the utter financial devastation that comes to the family members that are involved in this within the next year to 18 months following these tragedies. And if you're over 18, that doesn't mean parents are off the hook. I can pretty much guarantee that a teen is going to be driving a car that's insured registered or co-signed by their parents.

CAVANAUGH: What do we know about the differences between teenaged and adult drivers?

BLOCH: There's a lot of factors involved. Just to mention a few -- it's a good thing to let parents know that one of the reasons teens get into crashes is not just taking risks. Most of the crashes happen as a result of inexperience. And that's been something that's been demonstrated over the last 15 years or so. When a teen is driving down the road, and they make a left turn, and the parent is sitting there going, how did you do that? Why did you allow so little room between you and the car that was coming the other direction? And the answer is inexperience. And there's been research that demonstrates how teens preserve a situation, and they're not aware of the fact that it's -- it takes -- how difficult it is to make a left turn and to allow room between you and the car that's coming down the road. Another factor, passengers in the vehicle. Teens are very attuned to passengers. They're very attuned to social rewards that come from passengers.


BLOCH: The focus on social media, teens are much more fascinated by social media. This is new, this something they have an opportunity to get involved with, and deal with their friends. They're much more likely to use electronic devices, much more likely to think that those devices are important, and they're much more likely to be distracted. They tend to be distracted about twice as much as adults are. So when they're looking at a device, they may look down at the twice for two seconds instead of one second as opposed to parents.

CAVANAUGH: And we hear teens don't have a sense of their mortality. Is that actually true?

BLOCH: No, actually a widely held myth, and I think it's something that people like to think is the fact. But among 14-17 year-olds, the biggest risk takers are in that rage group, research has shown that they use the same mental problem-solvingl strategies as adults do. And they usually reason through a problem the same as adults do. And contrary to popular belief, they recognize that they're mortal, and they overestimate risk. They're just been taught this in health classes. But the difference is, and there's some fascinating research on the teen brain. What they found is that teens value social rewards much more than adults do. And that's a way that the teen brain has evolved over the ages to promote novelty, getting out in the world and it encourages them to meet new people, to take chances. Things that adults might not do. And this is --

CAVANAUGH: Interesting.

BLOCH: An important adaptation. So it's not just I want to take a risk. It's true, teens don't think through the balance between their impulses and desires, and the goals and the rules and the ethics of what they're doing, but they're just much more excited about social rewards that they get from --

CAVANAUGH: From their activity. That's interesting.

BLOCH: They're excited and that helps them with problem solving and meeting people, and all those things that teens have to do. It's not something that is wrong with the teens. They're just different from adults.

CAVANAUGH: A different emphasis. We know that drag racing on surface streets and freeways has been going on for years and years and years. How does law enforcement try to crack down on that activity?

PENNINGS: Well, we try to head it off at at pas. We're very active in the stress mark program, and education. When we know we have a specific problem in a specific area, we will utilize our resources to try to saturation enforcement.

CAVANAUGH: We have a program here in San Diego, race legal, legal drag racing at Qualcomm. What do programs like that do to address drag racing on highways? Do they actually help?

PENNINGS: I don't have any factual information about that, but looking back at my youth, and the things that I did, and the things -- my parents have been taking me to the race track since I was 15 years old. And I didn't have really have a desire to take it out on the street because I was able to let it out. I think that the potential for that and those rewards are great.

CAVANAUGH: And Steve, a lot of people assume, and you're going to tell us whether or not this is true, that drinking and driving is a big cause of traffic accidents among teenagers. Is that indeed the case?

BLOCH: Well, actually teens are involved in drinking and driving crashes at a lower rate than adults. The problem comes in, when they do drink, they're inexperienced drivers and they're inexperienced drinkers. If they do drink, their body reacts more strongly than it does to an adult, but also that leads to a greater probability being in a crash of their actually drinking.

CAVANAUGH: I read a very interesting statistic from the CHP, officer Pennings, that car accidents remain the leading cause of death among teenagers. And at least 75% of the accidents have nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. I think the person on the street would be surprised by that.

PENNINGS: Well, yeah, just like what Steve said, it doesn't -- the majority of the time it doesn't have to do with drugs or alcohol. Let us not forget that the first 12 months of driving is statistically the most dangerous time in your life. Half of teenagers will be involved in some kind of collision, minor or major, in their first 12 months of driving. It's a very dangerous time. And a lot of it has to do with like what you heard Steve say about the social pressure. But when we're dealing with cellphone, all a cellphone is like having a passenger in your car the whole time. And we talked about two of the three passengers, time and not having passengers but we don't let them use their cellphones in the car either because all that is is having a passenger in your car at the same time. So when you look at the distractions, I've heard varying statistics, but one that I heard is that when teenagers are involved in collisions, 90% of their collisions involve some kind of inattention, whether it be the cellphone, eating drinking, changing the stereo, talking to a passenger, but 90% of that involves one thing, and that is their cellphone.

CAVANAUGH: Steve, with the auto club, what do you hear from parents about their concerns?

BLOCH: Well, parents are very concerned about teens' driving. We teach a class here called dare to prepare, and I work with 15 year-olds, 16 year-olds and their parents. Parents are increasingly concerned about whether or not the teens are going to be driving, and I think that's part of the relationship there's been such a sharp decline in the rate at which teens are being licensed. Especially with the driver's license law. There's more and more information out there, and more concern about the crash risk, and the dangers for teens as they drive. And the more information that gets out there, I think parents are getting a better sense of the fact that this is a very dangerous thing they're allowing their teen to do. And they better put certain restrictions in front of their kids.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us more about the decline in driver's licenses issued for teenagers.

BLOCH: Sure, yeah, the earliest information I've been able to get was about 1979, 1978, back in the old days when the idea was that getting your driver's license was rite of passage. It's down 13 to 18% in recent years.

CAVANAUGH: Fascinating. We received some comments on our website regarding teenaged drivers, and one of them said parents should buy kids very old and slow cars. I'm wondering if that would work, No. 1, and if you could, what would you change about the way teens are trained and licensed to drive?

PENNINGS: Well, first of all, driving is a very responsible act, and it needs to be dealt with as a responsible act. You look at very single one of these major tragedies we have had, and without exemption every one of them involved teenagers driving outside of one if not two or three of their provisions. We need parents to be the patients and enforce these provisions we already have in place. As far as the type of vehicle, it's a catch 22. People are looking for the most efficient vehicle as possible, but there's going to need to be a compromise as far as the safety features on that vehicle. Airbags are huge. But the bottom line is that it dissipates the internal injury, which saves lives. So the -- I wouldn't recommend getting too old of a vehicle that doesn't have the safety features. But do your research. If a vehicle -- they do very extensive testing on these vehicles and five stars is the best you can get, do your research on the type was vehicles, and get the safest vehicles you can for your teen, not necessarily something that is as old as possible.

CAVANAUGH: Gentlemen, thank you both.