Blacksburg, VA - For a teenager, a driver's license is a ticket to freedom. But it can also lead down a road of trouble. Teen drivers are one of the riskiest demographics behind the wheel. Researchers at Virginia Tech have an idea to help that problem, and it's not a new law.
Researchers are encouraging parent involvement first and foremost along with strong laws. Researchers at VTTI, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, have evidence to back it up. They took 42 teenage drivers from Southwest Virginia, put cameras in their cars and monitored their driving. The finding: Teens can be risky drivers, and parents are the best line of defense to stop it.
Talking to friends, having a snack, and texting all give teenage drivers a bad rap on the road. Just ask older drivers.
"Anything can pretty much distract a teen driver," said Aisha Perkins.
"At 16 I can't trust you with a cell phone, how am I suppose to trust you with a vehicle on the road?" said Jeannie Martin.
In Central Virginia, we have reported on a handful of teen car crashes just this year.
"We are losing just far too many of our 16,17,18-year-olds," said Charlie Klauer.
Klauer has studied drivers for 16 years. She's a research scientist at VTTI. The nationally-known institute at Virginia Tech is devoted to transportation research. Their findings on teen drivers are eye-opening.
"Teens are at a very high crash rate. During their first six months of driving, 1:5 teens is involved in some sort of crash," said Klauer.
Klauer's study is called the Naturalistic Teenage Driving Study. Researchers monitored teen drivers for 18 months. The experiment ended three years ago, but researchers are still combing through its data, a treasure trove of information.
"One thing we did find is when parents are riding with their teens, their teens drive a lot more safely. And, the more the parent rides with the teen, the more that habit is reinforced," said Klauer.
A safe teen driver starts with attentive parents. Klauer says parents should ride with their kids, restrict evening driving hours, even take away the cell phone. Some already do.
"If I don't leave the driveway right, I'm not going anywhere," said Perkins.
"So, you had strict parents," we asked. "Yeah," said Perkins.
"My daughter was well over 18 before she got her driver's license," said Martin.
It's more than legislation. Republican Delegate Scott Garrett for the 23rd District sits on the transportation committee in Richmond.
"It still comes down to the parents, and people making good choices and solid choices. Parents teaching their children the difference between right and wrong and the children being mindful of that," said Garrett.
"From a 2012 Honda Civic, this is the black box," said Clay Gabler.
Gabler uses black boxes to study driving. The boxes tell him what teen drivers are doing seconds before a crash. For Gabler, accountable parenting is important, but good laws work too. Take learner's permits for example.
"States that have longer learning permit times - and those are usually for 16-year-olds - usually have lower crash rates for 16-year-olds, because it's a greater period of time where they're being supervised. They have mom or dad in the car with them, they're more likely to drive safer and to learn better driving behaviors," said Gabler.
So parents, before Junior gets behind the wheel, slip yourself in the passenger seat. Doctor's orders.
"Parents are a big, big part," said Klauer.
Another finding: Researchers say it's better not to give your teen a car of his/her own. The belief: If your teen uses the family car instead, he/she will drive more carefully, cautious risky driving would land him/her with no car at all.