Who is in the back seat? A look at teen drivers and distractions

Studies show that having passengers in the car is one of the most common and dangerous distractions a teenager in West Virginia may have.

When people think about distracted driving, they often call to mind a motorist who is texting or talking on the phone. West Virginia actually has some of the strictest laws in the country, banning all drivers from texting or otherwise using handheld devices when behind the wheel of a moving car.

This is a great step in preventing tragic accidents, but cellphone use is not the only distraction. Drivers of all ages may lose focus due to other factors, such as using a GPS system or even eating.

Recently, a few studies from State Farm and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia specifically looked at teenage drivers and the effect that having passengers in the car has on them. The results, which were published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, are alarming.

An overview

It should come as no surprise that a passenger may distract a driver through conversation or otherwise diverting his or her attention. In fact, the AAA reports that interacting with passengers was found to be the most common distraction associated with teenagers involved in motor vehicle accidents. Teenagers do not yet have much experience driving and should be focusing exclusively on the task at hand. However, the novelty of obtaining driving privileges - a milestone that is often viewed a way to gain some freedom - may easily overtake that focus.

The first study from CHOP simply evaluated the characteristics of teenage drivers. After surveying 198 teens, researchers found that the ones who would be likely to have multiple passengers in the vehicle did not have a strong grasp on the risks that driving presents and did not feel their parents set many rules for driving. Additionally, these teens considered themselves to be "thrill-seekers."

The hard numbers

The second study focused more on the actual risk of a teenager who has passengers in the vehicle compared to those driving alone. The results include the following:

  • Having passengers makes teen drivers more likely to be distracted before a crash.
  • Male teen drivers with passengers were nearly twice as likely to drive aggressively prior to a crash.
  • Forty-seven percent of female drivers and 71 percent of males admitted to passenger distraction prior to a crash.

Lastly, males were found to be nearly six times as likely to do some type of illegal driving maneuver when passengers are present.

West Virginia law

As part of West Virginia's graduated license program, teens who hold an instruction permit may not have any passengers other than a licensed driver who is 21 or older. With an intermediate license, teens are permitted to drive alone, though they may not have a non-family passenger younger than 20 for the first six months, and only one such passenger for the next six months.

Once a teen has a full license, there are no restrictions. However, it may be wise for parents to set their own rules concerning who may ride in the vehicle with their child. Anyone who has questions about this issue should speak with a personal injury attorney in West Virginia.

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