Take Charge with Teens' Auto Safety


(Orange County Register)

A teenage girl, as seen behind the wheel of a car.

photo by State Farm/Flickr Creative Commons

by Jeffrey Wasserman

April 21, 2014

Over the course of my children's unfolding lives, my wife and I have discussed a wide range of health issues with them, from eating healthy foods to remembering to take their medicine to making sure to get a good night's sleep. And we have often talked about automobile safety. My kids can still recall me saying – when they were very young and worried about an assailant entering our house in the middle of the night and killing us in our beds – “If you want to worry about something, worry about forgetting to look both ways before you cross the street and being squashed like a bug.” My wife was not pleased with the graphic image.

As my children pass through adolescence, my obsession over the dangers posed by cars has grown. I recently bought myself a new car equipped with safety features that were unimaginable only a few years ago: cruise control that automatically adjusts the car's speed and following distance to account for traffic, a blind-spot warning system, a system that monitors your attentiveness and tells you to take a break if it detects that you're tired, and so on.

My appreciation of these remarkable features led me to think more broadly about automobile safety. What can we do now to improve automobile safety while we wait for technology to save the day?

Automobile safety, like most health-related concerns, is and should be a shared responsibility. Federal safety standards govern almost every vehicle part, from tires to airbags to instrument panels, and federal monitoring can trigger widespread vehicle recalls that can prevent potential injuries and save lives. States have available a repertoire of safety-focused policies, ranging from toughening drunk driving laws to implementing red light cameras and strictly enforcing seat belt laws. In an era of constrained state resources, knowing which policies to implement can be a special challenge. In fact, some of my RAND colleagues are developing a tool that state policy makers can use to understand which safety options are likely to move the safety needle the most. The tool allows them to compare results across 12 evidence-based programs (such as sobriety checkpoints and enforcement of seatbelt laws), thus helping them select the programs that are most cost-effective in their particular states.

Parents also play a key role. We can, for instance, encourage our teenage drivers to drive the family car with the latest safety technology rather than an old clunker. We can also have a “no harm, no foul” policy when it comes to rides home after late-night parties – that is, reassure teenagers who have been drinking that you will pick them up, rather than have them drive home, no questions asked. Finally, we can provide our teenagers with rigorous driver training. As I told my kids, “don't worry about the DMV test, worry about mine.” (My threats are even more severe when it comes to texting and driving.)

Driving is a risk that virtually all of us take on a daily basis. But we can do much to mitigate risks and protect our children, our community, and ourselves.

Jeffrey Wasserman is vice president and director of RAND Health.

This commentary originally appeared in Orange County Register on April 21, 2014. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.