RICHARDSON - Teen Drivers: Dead or Alive? was the focus of a traffic safety summit presented by Citizens for Traffic Safety of Greater Dallas on Thursday at the Richardson Civic Center.

The summit looked at the pros and cons of teen driving while also seeking to put together an interdisciplinary approach to helping prevent accidents involving young drivers.

“We wanted to target several people from a different aspect whereas, together, there is some synergy,” said Scott Cooner, research engineer and program manager for the Arlington Office for Research and Implementation of the Texas Transportation Institute and coordinator of Thursday’s summit. “We all know that teen driving is an issue and is at the forefront so our goal is to get everyone involved. This summit gives us that opportunity of reviewing programs that could support this issue. We’re targeting ISD administrations also in ways of implementing programs, such as Teens in the Driver Seat and Shattered Dreams, which are designed to increase awareness of risk factors and reduce teen injuries and death from car crashes.”

In his presentation, Russell Henk of the Texas Transportation Institute discussed the top risks for teen drivers including driving at night, speeding, teen passengers and cellular phones, not buckling up, and drinking and driving.

“Over 50 percent of vehicle accidents are caused by speeding and we’re losing too many of our teens to this,” Henk said, saying statistics indicate 500 teenagers are killed each year in Texas alone, with about 6,000 teens killed each year across the nation.

According to the Web site:

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for persons aged 15 to 19 years old. Four out of every 10 teenagers that die in this country are killed in a motor vehicle crash. More than 6,200 teenagers die each year in motor vehicle crashes, which would equate to loading a commercial jet with teens and crashing it every week. On average, a teenager is injured every 15 minutes in a motor vehicle crash in the United States. Car crashes involving drivers 15 to 20 years old cost the nation $41 billion every year.

Henk serves as program director for the Teens in the Driver Seat program and believes implementation of the program can likely decrease the number of accidents involving young drivers.

“This program is America’s first peer-to-peer safety program for young drivers involving teenagers directly in message development and delivery,” Henk said. “It is designed to establish a sustainable peer-to-peer program that will increase awareness of teen driving risks and it reaches far beyond the risk of alcohol use and focuses on driving dangers that have been largely overlooked in the past.”

According to Henk’s presentation, assessments at participating schools show awareness levels improve by up to 200 percent; seat belt use is up 11 percent; and cell phone texting is down 30 percent.

“This is a great program, not only because it’s fact-based, but because it’s peer-to-peer,” city of Garland representative Robert Wunderlich said, saying Garland ISD partnered with district administrators to implement the program.

“In the last four years, we had 12 teens killed where 70 percent was the teen’s fault so this was definitely a need,” he said. “The beauty of the program is that it is not prescriptive and it is one of the best ways to save lives.”

Speaking on the Teen Brain and How Does Our Society Encourage Risky Behavior? was Sarah Pahl with Drug Resources Prevention, whose presentation showed the level of incompetence and competence when it comes to teens and their decision-making abilities.

Pahl explained the three areas of the brain that undergo several changes in the growth process but also pointed out that a teenager’s brain is not fully developed until age 25.

“The first part of the brain that undergoes changes is the prefrontal cortex, which is the chief decision-making and also the last area of the brain to develop in adolescence,” she said. “The second part of the brain that undergoes changes is the corpus callosum, which is the part of the brain that is involved in problem solving and creativity and experiences tremendous growth during adolescence. The last part of the brain that undergoes changes is the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory and is most sensitive during adolescence.

“Because the brain goes through these changes, there are some safe strategies to keep teens safe and they include preventive education, which is reviewing current programs and evaluating effectiveness, and developing an effective policy, which would restrict teen driving by raising the driving age, limit the number of passengers and ban cell phones use,” she said. “My strong recommendation to keeping teens safe is to just set good examples because kids will watch what their parents do. All of this could reduce the risk.”

To show how teen driving affects teens and families, several slide shows were presented displaying teens’ testimonies pertaining to drinking and driving involving or nearing accidents.

Lt. Timothy Tomczack of the Raleigh Police Department discussed the issues from an officer’s perspective.

“I’ve seen several fatal teens’ accidents that I won’t ever forget,” Tomczack said, saying he’s also been involved in several teen drivers’ workshops locally and nationally to help raise awareness.

“We just want people to start thinking outside the box to reach teens and the more traffic enforcement you have, the less accidents you would have,” he said. “All officers have a reason we do what we do and it has a lot to do with families.”

Cooner said the summit’s primary goal was accomplished.

“We strived to have an interdisciplinary approach to identifying key changes and I think we accomplished that by trying to reduce wrecks and injuries dealing with teens,” Cooner said.

Other topics covered during the summit included Texas Experience with the Graduated Driver’s License Law, Parent-Taught Driver Education, Teen Drivers: What is the Concern? and Milemeter.

The event was sponsored by the Southwest chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers, Atlanta Bread Company, Coca Cola of Dallas, Injury Prevention Center of Greater Dallas, North Central Texas Council of Governments, North Central Texas Trauma Regional Advisory Council, State Farm Insurance and the Texas Transportation Institute.

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