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Sandstrom: New legislation gives teens a voice in traffic safety programming

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

I am a teenager. I stay up too late. I wake up too late. I get emotional. I don’t want my parents circling me like hawks, and I definitely don’t want them to try to tell me what to do, especially behind the wheel. However, now that students are falling back into the school routine, it’s time for everyone to pay attention to teen safety on the road.

Daily, young people get behind the wheel to go to class, work or activities, but if you’re a teen driver like me, your odds on the road aren’t good. Young drivers are the most dangerous type of driver, to themselves and to everyone else. According to the Centers for Disease Control, individuals ages 15-24 represent only 14 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for almost 30 percent of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries – leaving them highly overrepresented.

The disproportionate number of teen crashes is the result of several key factors. One of the central reasons is the obvious – lack of experience. Teens are more likely to underestimate risky situations and to be unable to recognize hazardous ones. They are also more likely to tailgate the vehicle in front of them, reducing their reaction time if necessary. Also, because the judgment center of their brains is still developing, teens are more susceptible to the influences of peer pressure and emotion.

Yet, despite overwhelming evidence that teen drivers and teen driver safety merit the nation’s attention, before this year, federal highway safety legislation barely mentioned teens.

While teen drivers have historically been an overlooked group of motor vehicle operators, the recent passage of the highway bill, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, marked a change in the trend, seriously addressing teen drivers. MAP-21 establishes funding for distracted driving, an area that affects teens more than others, and also provides incentives for progressive graduated driver’s license programs.

Most important to me, MAP-21 encourages states to include a peer-to-peer component in any teen traffic safety program they adopt, acknowledging that teens must be part of the solution for an issue that so directly affects them.

Peer-to-peer efforts, like those provided for in the MAP-21 legislation, are key to the success of any attempt to keep teens safe, as they encourage teens to take an active part in reaching out and touching one another in ways that teens know are effective. My friends and I are not oblivious to the risks we face when behind the wheel, and we are not passive in the fight for safer roads. After all, we’re the ones primarily at risk. 

Thousands of students and many student organizations across the nation, including Students Against Driving Drunk, are engaged in creating positive change for our generation – working to improve our safety on the road. I am grateful that teens themselves are now being recognized as a key part of something as important as traffic safety policy.

• Carrie Louise Sandstrom is the SADD National Student of the Year. Contact her at carrie.sandstrom@my.und.edu.

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