The statistics are grim: Highway crashes are the leading cause of death for young Americans. While such fatalities had declined in recent years, overall highway deaths were up last year. Deaths of 16- and 17-year-olds increased nearly 20 percent from the previous year, based on preliminary data.
The government has preached a message of "don't text and drive" and has encouraged students to produce their own public service announcements:
At a rally at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., advocates kicked off Global Youth Traffic Safety Month. Elliot Johnson, an 18-year-old high school senior from Brookings, S.D., has led efforts among his peers to raise awareness of the risks of distracted driving.
"You have to start early enough where kids know that pulling out your cellphone while you're driving is just not OK, and that will become embedded in their minds," he says. "I think what we're doing is really spreading awareness, for sure, but I think starting at the young level is really where it's going to happen for the generations to come."
Parental involvement may be even more important. That includes working with teens to develop their driving skills and being role models.
"I think too many parents — we're all guilty of doing as I say not as I do," says Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "What you really need to do is model that behavior because they are watching you, and you are actually one of the best indicators of what your child's behavior is going to be."
Hersman says graduated licenses, developed in the past two decades and now the law in all 50 states, have helped make teen driving safer.
"Giving kids better experience behind the wheel, more supervision, making sure that they don't have a lot of teen passengers in the car with them — if you've got four teenagers in the car, you're four times as likely to have a fatal crash — nighttime driving restrictions, portable electronic device restrictions, those are the things that really help," she says.
The next step may be to formalize the parents' role in getting their kids licensed. While it may be the last thing any teenager wants, a pilot project in Virginia, for example, requires parents and teens to take a drivers' safety class together before taking part in a licensing ceremony together before a judge.