How To Protect Your Teen Driver During The '100 Deadliest Days Of Summer'

A disproportionate number of car crashes occur between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and teen drivers are particularly at risk.
The summer months see a disproportionate number of car crashes.
xxmmxx via Getty Images
The summer months see a disproportionate number of car crashes.

For a teen with a fresh driver’s license, the combination of summer vacation and the open road means unprecedented freedom. Unfortunately, the increased time that teens spend driving during summer break also leads to a spike in the number of car crashes, which are a leading cause of death for young people in the U.S.

“It is often the case that there are more fatal crashes during summer,” Robert Sinclair Jr., senior manager of public affairs at AAA Northeast, told HuffPost. For this reason, the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day is sometimes referred to as the “100 Deadliest Days of Summer.” Examining data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Sinclair said that in 2022 “there were more crashes during summer ... compared to the rest of the year.”

Though numbers vary by state, Sinclair found that the trend of disproportionate deaths in the summer months held for several states in the Northeast. In New York, for example, of the 473 teen drivers killed in car crashes from 2010 to 2019, 176 (or 37%) died during the summer months.

There are a number of factors that contribute to this increased risk during the summer months, and they tend to have an outsized impact on young and inexperienced drivers. According to David Perecman, founder and lead trial lawyer at The Perecman Firm, who frequently deals with car accidents in personal injury cases, “During the summer months, there’s an increase in the number of vehicles on the road due to vacations, road trips and tourism.” When driving longer distances, people may be more likely to speed, which increases the risk and severity of accidents.

“Warmer weather also often leads to an increase in motorcycles and bicycles on the road,” Perecman added, and this, too, can lead to more crashes and fatalities.

Finally, there are all the summer celebrations and gatherings, such as the Fourth of July, that often involve alcohol use. “This can lead to an increased incidence of drunk-driving-related accidents where drivers have impaired judgment, slower reaction times and decreased coordination on the road,” Perecman explained.

In its recent Teen Road Fatalities Report, which analyzed 2021 data, driver’s education provider Zutobi found that the main causes of teen driver fatalities were drinking, speeding and distractions. Zutobi’s co-founder Lucas Waldenback told HuffPost that in 2021, throughout the U.S., 588 teen drivers died in DUI (driving under the influence) crashes and 368 died in crashes involving distracted driving, which includes texting and talking on the phone.

In addition, the Zutobi report analyzed how this data varied by state.

“For the second year in a row, Kentucky has the most teenage driving fatalities in the country, with 72.43 deaths per 100,000 teenage drivers,” Waldenback said. A possible explanation is the lack of public transportation in rural areas of the state.

“In 2018, just 1.0% of Kentucky workers aged 16 and above relied on public transportation, significantly lower than the national average of 4.9% (as reported by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics),” he added.

Other states with higher rates of teen driver fatalities also have significant rural expanses, including Montana (58.47 deaths per 100,000 teenage drivers), Mississippi (57.45), Vermont (50.82), North Carolina (43.52), New Mexico (39.50), Louisiana (38.40), Florida (33.06), South Carolina (32.79) and Arkansas (31.81).

Although teen driver fatality numbers had been going down steadily since 1982, they rose in 2019 and 2021. This uptick is surprising because it reverses the downward trend and because people drove less during those pandemic years. Waldenback suggested that the rise may have, in fact, been pandemic-related.

“Teenagers, who already tend to engage in riskier behaviors due to their limited experience, may have exhibited even riskier behaviors during the pandemic, leading to the increase in fatalities,” he said.

Parents want their teens to stay safe but also to enjoy summer fun and the independence that driving offers. Here are some tips to help them successfully navigate both.

Follow your state’s graduated license requirements.

The implementation of graduated licensing requirements across the country in the 1980s and ’90s significantly reduced risks for teen drivers. Though these laws vary by state, they generally require that teens complete a minimum number of hours of supervised driving before they are allowed to drive alone, as well as restrictions on the number of passengers teens can have with them in a car and the times of day that they can be on the road.

By adhering to these requirements and reiterating the importance of the rules, families can help reduce the risks for their teen drivers. Limits on the number of passengers, which usually exempt family members, help teens keep their attention on the road instead of on their friends. Restrictions on nighttime driving also reduce the risk of crashes.

Eliminate potential distractions.

Even if your teen is allowed a non-family passenger in the car by their graduated license, you may opt to limit the passengers in whatever way you think will help your teen keep their focus on the road. The same goes for curfews — graduated license requirements are a guideline, but you can decide to require your teen to be home even earlier.

Though we all love some carpool karaoke, it may also be best to keep the music off while your teen is still a relatively new driver. This eliminates the distraction of finding the next song or preferred radio station when their focus should be on the road.

Highlight the dangers of speeding, substance abuse and cellphones.

The biggest risk of distraction in the car is the same thing distracting your kid all day long: their phone.

“Ground rules should include prohibiting texting while driving and other cellphone use,” Perecman said. As adults, we’re accustomed to using GPS when driving to new locations, but teens don’t have the necessary experience to manage this safely. They should begin by driving to familiar destinations in daylight hours and, after sufficient practice, learn to plan out a route to a less familiar destination before they head out, keeping their phone out of reach the entire time they are behind the wheel. If a car has its own screen and maps, parents will have to decide what they think their teen can handle but should remember that anything that takes their child’s eyes off the road presents a risk.

You can find a sample parent-child contract on the AAA website to use as a model when setting these guidelines with your child, which includes phone restrictions as well as consequences for getting pulled over.

Other ground rules that experts suggested include:

  • Always wearing seatbelts.
  • A zero-tolerance policy on alcohol and drug use.
  • Limits on who can be a passenger in the car.
  • A reasonable curfew to limit nighttime driving.
  • Adherence to speed limits.
  • A ban on racing or other reckless driving.

To help teens comply with that final suggestion, Sinclair had some thoughts about the kind of vehicle your teen should be driving. Although it needs to be safe and well-maintained, you don’t want to encouraging risky behavior with a flashy car.

“I have seen too many stories of youngsters with new cars that wind up killing themselves, friends in their vehicle and others on the road when they engage in outlandish driving behavior soon after getting their licenses or even just have a permit,” Sinclair said.

“The head of our traffic safety department gave his kids old, single-row pickup trucks as their first vehicle. It handled poorly and, with one row, limited having other teens in the vehicle,” Sinclair explained, thus doubly disincentivizing the appeal of showing off.

Set an example of safe driving well before your teen takes the wheel.

“Discussing driver safety well before your teen starts driving ... allows for gradual exposure to the topic and establishes safety as a priority,” Perecman said. Talking about potential risks and responsible road behavior using examples from your own or others’ experience “will help your teen understand the real-life impact of unsafe driving practices.”

As with all lessons, what you do holds more weight than what you say.

“Parents should be modeling good driving behavior from the time they are driving the newborn home from the hospital, keeping in mind that children are always watching their actions behind the wheel,” Sinclair said.

Though it’s tempting to check that text notification at a stoplight, the real question isn’t whether you can do so safely; it’s whether you’d want your child doing the same thing someday.

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