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Prof analyzes aggressive teenage driving

Transportation engineering Professor Chandra Bhat explains why a pickup could be the most dangerous vehicle for a 16- to 17-year-old to drive. Teens driving them are 100 percent more likely to be severely injured during a crash than a teen of the same age driving a car.

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Parents and teen drivers take note: a pickup could be the most dangerous vehicle for a 16- to 17-year-old to drive, so much so that teens driving them are 100 percent more likely to be severely injured during a crash than a teen of the same age driving a car.

And, despite what many state policies mandate for young drivers going through state-run driver’s license programs, in terms of risks of being seriously injured in a crash, it is more dangerous for a driver — regardless of their age — to have one teenage passenger in their vehicle instead of two or three.

These findings are two of many from a new study by Cockrell School of Engineering transportation engineering Professor Chandra Bhat and civil engineering graduate students Rajesh Paleti and Naveen Eluru.

The study focused on traffic data collected by safety researchers at the scene of roughly 7,000 crashes in the U.S. between January 2005 and December 2007.

Bhat’s study is the first of its kind to examine how aggressive driving behavior — as well as other driving characteristics such as time of day and number of passengers in a vehicle — relates to the severity of injuries sustained during a traffic accident. Unlike previous reports in this field, the study gave considerable attention to small age variations in teenagers and found that the younger a driver is, the more likely he or she will drive aggressively and be involved in a serious crash.

The research adds to the ongoing public dialogue to find countermeasures for aggressive driving and improve driver safety, especially among teenagers for which the leading causes of death are vehicle crashes.

For Bhat, who conceived of, and directed, the study, finding these countermeasures is both professional and personal: his eldest daughter, Prerna, is 16 and just obtained her driver’s license through the state’s Graduated Driver License (GDL) Program. The program started in January 2002 and requires teens to follow a two-phase process that gradually gives them more driving independence.

“I wanted to look at the GDL program to see if there’s something more I needed to do or know as a parent,” Bhat said.

Bhat is already using suggestions that came out of the study with his teen daughter. He has a driving agreement with her that, among other things, restricts her from driving past 10 p.m., driving with teenage passengers in her car and driving if she’s had less than six consecutive hours of sleep.

“It may leave my daughter thinking I am anti-teenager,” Bhat said, but it’s a reputation he is willing to hold if it means she’ll be a safer driver.

He still has not decided what type of vehicle to get her, but he’s certain of one thing: it won’t be a pickup.

Key findings of the research and their policy implications include:

  • Regardless of the driver’s age, traveling with a single young passenger poses the greatest risk of being in an accident where injuries sustained are severe. It is more dangerous than driving alone or driving with a group of young passengers, likely because with one passenger a driver feels an obligation to entertain or stay focused on their passenger. Because of this, Bhat and his colleagues suggest that GDL programs, many of which permit teen drivers to have a single young passenger, clamp down on this provision.
  • Drivers tend to be the most aggressive during morning rush hour, due to time pressures to reach their office or school as well as closer vehicle spacings. The study suggests that GDL programs may consider prohibiting driving to and from school during the GDL program.
  • Young adults are likely to continue driving aggressively until about 20 years of age, when accompanied by other young adults. Bhat and his colleagues suggest that concerted education and awareness campaigns on aggressive driving for adolescents ages 18-20 could help.
  • Drinking and driving is the deadliest combination for teen drivers and a parental lack of involvement may be a contributing factor in this. The study suggests that parents be required to go through a short, possibly community-based course motivating them to be proactive in managing their teen’s driving habits.
  • Teenagers driving a pickup are more likely to drive aggressively and sustain serious injuries in a crash. While a ban on pickups during the GDL program is impractical, Bhat and his colleagues recommend that it be communicated to parents as part of the program.
  • When it comes to aggressive driving behavior, a 16- to 17-year-old is 368 percent more likely to drive aggressively than those 65 or older, while a teen just a couple of years older is only 195 percent more likely. In short, the younger a teen is, the more likely he or she will drive aggressively.