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What Young Motorists Most Need to Learn — and Early

You know all those bans and taboos associated with teen drivers, i.e., those proscriptions that most adult drivers know intuitively are well-placed when it comes to curbing car accidents involving new and inexperienced drivers? The list is bandied about with great frequency, recited by everyone from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to researchers linked to myriad traffic safety studies. It includes no talking on cell phones, no texting, limits on the number of passengers and a host of other “nos” — in short, its aim and intended reach is no distractions while driving, period.

Which is a good thing, obviously, given the harrowing statistics associated with teen mortality rates in motor vehicle mishaps, especially when compared to more mature drivers. It is also, say researchers in a new study on teen driving funded by State Farm Insurance and carried out by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, merely a good start that addresses only part of the problem.

Teen crashes are not usually the result of Indy-type driving or reckless behavior. Most teens are earnest motorists, and most accidents don’t ensue after a teen driver — driving 100 mph, with one hand on the wheel and the other wrapped around a cell phone — runs a red light or barrels off a bridge.

Findings from the new study say it is all about experience, which teens understandably lack. Until they get it, they are a comparatively dangerous group once the key it turned.

The experts tell us that our roads will be a lot safer if we can better impart road-scanning ability to newer drivers. “It comes automatically to experienced drivers, but scanning is actually a teachable skill,” says Allison Curry, the lead author of the study.

What is scanning? Most simply put, it is the ability to see surroundings and potential road problems in all directions at a distance far beyond the vehicle itself. Older drivers do it well, and younger drivers get better at it as their time behind the wheel increases. Until it does, most of them are a bit myopic, preoccupied by what is immediately in front of, beside and behind them.

Improve that skill during formal training, say researchers — spend more time on it, talk about it, point things out, ask questions about what the driver is seeing, etc. — and roads across the country will become noticeably safer.

Related Resource: “Study: Teen drivers typically make common critical errors before a crash” April 12, 2011