Earning a driver’s license is a rite of passage for many American teenagers, and while this can be an exhilarating time for young drivers, it is also a dangerous one. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

On April 19, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) experts spoke with local high school students about teen driving risks and demonstrated ways to become safe drivers, during its School Day program.

“From a public health standpoint, we should always include and communicate directly with the people we are trying to help,” said Gayatri Ankem, a research associate for VTTI’s Center for Vulnerable Road User Safety. “VTTI is doing the research, and we know how bad things are, but we are also working on solutions to help young drivers make safer choices. I can’t imagine a better way for us to educate teens and get involved than this [School Day].”

Throughout School Day, classes from Montgomery, Floyd, and Pulaski counties visited VTTI and toured the Virginia Smart Road testing facility. Students ranging in age from second grade to 10th grade interacted with researchers and experienced firsthand the transportation safety research and technology being developed in the New River Valley. VTTI co-hosts the event annually with the Virginia Department of Transportation.

VTTI School Day bus
Local high school students toured the Virginia Smart Road during the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and Virginia Department of Transportation’s School Day program.

When Carol Kroeger heard about School Day, she thought it would be a great opportunity for her driver’s education class at Dayspring Christian Academy to hear from teen driving safety experts.

“The students are close to holding their driving permits, if they don’t have them already. Our administration felt it was important for them to see this research and engage with experts, not only to make them aware of the risks, but also on the tools they can use to become safe, alert, and responsible drivers. VTTI gives us a face in the community to rely on for these resources,” said Kroeger.

During their visit, Kroeger’s class met with Ankem to explore teen driving safety data and best practices based on the transportation institute’s research. Ankem works for VTTI’s Teen Risk and Injury Prevention Group, which studies the hazards facing young drivers and identifies safety measures. The group also collaborates with local school districts on outreach programs.

Ankem began her interactive presentation by quizzing the class on their knowledge of teen driving statistics. For example, one out of every five young drivers in the country is involved in a collision within the first six months of driving. If the teenage driver is texting, the crash risk quadruples, according to VTTI's research for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This statistic surprised Makayla Carr, a sophomore student in Kroeger’s class.

“You hear all that time that you should be careful and not to let yourself be distracted by your phone while driving. But it is so hard to do that in today’s culture considering that everybody is always using their phones,” said Carr. “I’ve always heard that there are a lot of deaths with teens, but I never realized how many there actually are.”

Ankem and the students also discussed the key risks facing teen drivers. Based on VTTI’s research, some of these risks include texting, speeding, night driving, traveling with teenage passengers, and not wearing seat belts. Being inattentive while driving is particularly hazardous, which Ankem put into perspective like this: If someone is driving at 55 miles per hour, that person will drive the length of one football field in only four seconds.

Despite these facts, Ankem stressed that students can become safe drivers by practicing consistently with their parents and guardians. An additional option is for teenagers and their parents to develop a mutual system of tracking and rewarding improved driving performance over time. A recent VTTI study for the National Surface Transportation Safety Center for Excellence found that consistent parental involvement greatly reduces precarious driving behaviors by their teenagers.

“Driving is a risky activity, but you don’t have to be a statistic. You can do something about it,” Ankem told students during her presentation. “Practice, practice, practice while you have your learner’s permit and be sure to communicate with your parents consistently. Driving is like learning any skill — it takes a lot of practice, but if you do, you will become safe and responsible drivers.”

Carr, who has her learner’s permit, said the discussion made her realize the importance of staying alert behind the wheel.

“I think when you have other people in the car, it is especially important to be safe and not to do things that you shouldn’t just because you want to impress them. That is definitely something that I will remember when I have friends in the car.”

Upon hearing the word “friends,” Kroeger widened her eyes in mock disapproval. This was a gentle reminder to Carr that learner’s permit holders can have only one passenger in the car at a time.

“Well … one friend,” Carr clarified, smiling.

Following School Day, VTTI and VDOT hosted an open house of the Virginia Smart Road for the general public.

Learn about future tour opportunities: http://www.vtti.vt.edu/about/tours.html

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