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Originally published: 2012-12-26 10:34:28
Last modified: 2012-12-26 10:35:17

Teen driver safety improves statewide, but still a local concern

A report this week from the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force finds that teen road safety laws are strong, but Watauga County ranks first in the state for crashes among 16-17-year-olds.

The task force was formed in 1991 to recommend policies on an array of topics. After changes were made to the Graduated Driver Licensing program in 2011, state legislators asked the task force to review teen road safety policies and offer suggestions.

The report, released Thursday, found that the Graduated Driver Licensing system started in 1997 continues to be successful in reducing the number of crashes by young drivers.

Since its implementation, crashes have been reduced by 38 percent for 16-year-olds and 20 percent for 17-year-olds, according to the task force.

The GDL restricts activities such as driving at night or with multiple friends in the car and requires drivers to learn in the company of a supervising driver.

“GDL is highly effective in minimizing young driver crashes because it replaces punitive approaches with a strategy grounded in the science of how young people learn new skills,” task force executive director Elizabeth Hudgins said.

Despite the overall reduction in crashes, the report offered a startling look at Watauga County.

An analysis of teen crashes between 2005 and 2009 found that Watauga County was first in the state for the number of crashes per capita for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Oddly, the county was the polar opposite among 18-to-20-year-olds, coming in 97 among 100 counties for crashes in that age group.

The report stated that young driver crashes are more common in towns and cities, but crashes on rural roads are more likely to be fatal or result in serious injuries.

The task force found few new strategies to implement on a statewide scale but offered several recommendations for local communities to improve road safety.

Members noted that public safety campaigns are more likely to be effective if they include concrete steps such as putting the cell phone in the trunk to prevent talking or texting.

They also found that enforcement efforts should be highly visible and unpredictably deployed, that seatbelt reminders need to include passengers, and that more parental engagement brought greater reinforcement of safe driving techniques.

The task force also noted that quick and reasonably certain rewards or punishments typically carry more weight for young drivers than those that seem unlikely, such as loss of license or high fines.

“Communities are well-positioned to develop sustained local programs that provide social support and external encouragement for seatbelt use and creative ways to resist risky behaviors like texting,” said Robert Foss, director of the UNC Center for the Study of Young Drivers. “Local programs are also needed to support and encourage parents of novice drivers to ensure their teens do a great deal of supervised driving in a wide range of conditions during their learner period.”

The task force recommended avoiding fear-based programs, such as simulating or showing gory results of car crashes.

“These kinds of programs rarely produce any change because they are based on an oversimplified understanding of teenage driver risks and of human behavior more generally,” Foss said. “Decades of research have disproven scare tactics as an effective learning technique.”

Visit to download the entire report.