Thirty percent of teens involved in serious car crashes suffer head injuries, including concussion, skull fractures and traumatic brain injuries (TBI), new research from medical and insurance experts says.
While the report by The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and State Farm highlights a decline in teen driver-related fatalities over the past six years, researchers said crashes remain the leading cause of death for teens and kill nearly five times as many 15- to 19-year-olds as cancer or poisoning.
The study looked at crashes among more than 55,000 teen drivers and their passengers who were seriously injured each year in 2009 and 2010.
“Since full recovery from serious head injuries is often not achievable, there can be a significant life-long impact from these injuries on teens and their families,” said Dennis R Durbin, MD, MSCE, lead author of the report and co-scientific director for the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at CHOP. “The brain is the organ that is least able to heal, so prevention is the best medicine.”
Durbin said that programs focused on Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) and increasing seat belt use are proven effective strategies.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of TBI-related death among 15- to 19-year-olds. However, there has been progress between 2005 and 2010 in efforts to reduce the number and impact of teen driver crashes and related fatalities. During this time, the number of teen drivers that died in crashes declined 46 percent – from 2,399 to 1,305 deaths. Deaths among their passengers also declined 41 percent, from 1,777 to 1,022. In 2010, 1,849 fewer teen drivers and their passengers perished in crashes as compared to 2005.
The researchers said this is a substantial public health achievement for those in traffic safety.
They also noted significant variation in fatality rates among states–ranging from a low of 3.9 deaths per 100,000 teens in Massachusetts to a high of 29.1 per 100,000 teens in Montana in 2009-2010. The average annual fatality rate for all 50 states was 9.5 deaths per 100,000 teens.
The variation is due, at least in part, to the strength of a state’s GDL law, according to the report. Twelve states implemented comprehensive GDL policy and other programs to reduce their teen fatality rate by more than 50 percent in just six years. Five states — Arizona, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island – have maintained rates of less than 10 crash-related deaths per 100,000 teens since 2005-2006. All five states have comprehensive GDL laws.
“The differences in fatality rates from state to state show that much more can be done to improve policies to more consistently prevent deaths among teen drivers and their passengers,” said Chris Mullen, director of Technology Research, Strategic Resources at State Farm Insurance. “States with comprehensive GDL laws have lower fatality rates than those with weaker laws. Primary seat belt laws and teen-focused initiatives to increase seat belt use will also help further reduce deaths and injuries, even if a crash occurs.”
A comprehensive GDL law includes at least 50 hours of adult-supervised practice under varied conditions; limits teen passengers for the first year of independent driving; restricts unsupervised nighttime driving; requires seat belt use for the driver and all passengers; and prohibits cell phone use.
“We should use the success stories in states with the greatest reductions to fuel progress in states still burdened with high numbers of teens dying in crashes and suffering serious brain injuries,” said Durbin. “Those success stories typically involved comprehensive GDL and primary enforcement belt laws.”
The authors recommend that many of the states with teen crash fatality rates above the national average (9.5 per 100,000) close gaps in their GDL policy to reduce fatality rates. They also suggest utilizing evidence-based programs aimed at increasing belt use, reducing distractions, and teaching key driving skills, such as speed control and hazard detection, in keeping teens safe on the road.
For the complete report, videos, and for more information on teen driver safety, click here.