Diagnosis: drivers bedeviled by inexperience, lack of skills

June 9, 2015

So if you’ve been bitterly critical about the lack of driving skills you’ve witnessed out on the roads in recent years, there’s now a study to back up your observations.

Researchers at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's (CHOP) Center for Injury Research and Prevention and the University of Pennsylvania recently unveiled a new study, published in the journal Injury Prevention, that combined a decade of foundational research regarding young driver crashes and over five years of additional research of driver skill levels via the use of a Simulated Driving Assessment (SDA) software program.

[Here’s one example of how such teenager-focused simulator programs work. This one is used by the Teen Driving Simulator Center, opened in August 2010, and operated by the Injury Prevention Center at Connecticut Children's Medical Center under funding from The Allstate Foundation.]

CHOP’s findings are worrisome: For all new drivers, regardless of their age, crash risk is highest immediately following licensure, with driver errors due to inexperience and lack of skill causing the majority of those crashes.

"When we put new drivers on the road without ensuring that they have the necessary skills to drive safely, why are we surprised when they crash? We shouldn't be," says Flaura Winston, MD, PhD, scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) at CHOP and principal investigator for the SDA line of research.

"We're providing the science behind the answer to why teens – and some adults – don't drive well,” she added. “Some haven't developed the skills they need to navigate complex driving situations and are crashing due to error. It's no longer a mystery; we know where and how they crash.”

For teenaged drivers in the U.S., Winston stressed that this determination is particularly critical because motor vehicle crashes remain the number one cause of death for teenagers in this country.

"It is worrisome that the participants in our study were all licensed drivers yet many had inadequate driving skills, even without the deterioration in performance that can occur with common distractions like texting and peer passengers,” added  Catherine McDonald, PhD, RN, lead author of the study and a teen driver safety researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and CIRP.

“Before teens are allowed to drive on the roads by themselves, we need to ensure that they have the skills that can prevent them from crashing,” she pointed out. “Additionally, when teens crash, we need to diagnose what went wrong and remediate it."

[That’s why more than few trucking companies are investing in simulator systems. You can read more about that here and also see how such technology, like the TranSimVS works where commercial vehicle operation is concerned below.]

McDonald noted that during the 35-minute SDA, which incorporates 22 variations of the most common ways teen drivers crash, CHOP’s study found that nearly 43% of newly licensed teens (within three months of licensure) experienced a simulated crash at least once. For licensed, experienced adult drivers, that percentage was 29% (which is still too high in my estimation!)

For every additional error committed during the SDA, the risk for crashing or running off the road increased by 8%, the researchers found.

CHOP’s study also determined that although the novice teen drivers were adept at basic driving skills (i.e., using turn signals) the more advanced skills (i.e., braking in hazardous situations, anticipating and responding to hazards) proved far more challenging – too much so, in many cases, thus leading to crashes.

CHOP’s researchers also noted that previous studies of newly licensed teenage drivers indicate that they exit their “learner period” with significant skill deficits, leading to a much higher risk of crashing compared with more experienced drivers. Their most common types of crashes? Left turns, rear-end events, and running off the road.

Now, obviously, CHOP’s study concludes that more simulator training for new drivers – and, surprise, surprise, they tout their very own SDA program for the job – will help beef up the skills necessary to prevent crashes out on our roadways.

Personally, I feel that will be extremely hard – if not impossible – to accomplish, largely due to the way everyday driver training is conducted nowadays.

But that issue is for tomorrow’s post.

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