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msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/12/2007 6:21:23 PM ET 2007-02-12T23:21:23

In the contentious debate of how best to prepare young drivers for the challenges of safe driving, new evidence shows that teaching teenagers how to avoid crashes does in fact make them safer drivers.

It’s an important topic, given that car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers. And the debate about how to deal with it mirrors the dispute over the best approach to sex education for teens.

To date, the safety establishment — in the form of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the American Academy of Pediatrics and others — essentially has preached abstinence, arguing that teenagers should avoid driving unsupervised until they are more mature.

Some have even argued that offering advanced driver training to young drivers — teaching them to swerve through courses lined with plastic cones and slide cars over sprinkler-soaked roads — is dangerous.

“This type of training may have an unintended negative benefit of making young drivers overconfident,” said Anne McCartt, vice president for research at the insurance institute. The propensity to take risk “has more to do with attitude and thrill-seeking rather than skills,” she added.

But experts in driver training say it is unrealistic to expect teens to refrain from driving unsupervised. And now they have data to show that teaching better skills can help keep them safe.

“Looking at the accidents that take place when the driver has a chance to react to the emergency, trained students have a powerful advantage over untrained drivers,” said Bill Scott, a retired racing driver who is president of Summit Point Automotive Research Center, or SPARC, in Summit Point, W.Va.

SPARC, recently compiled a report that showed untrained young drivers suffered 36 percent more crashes and 75 percent more multicar crashes than drivers who had been through their course. The study followed about 300 students, about half of them with special training, over a five-year span from age 16 to 21.

The school, which also trains law enforcement, military and diplomatic drivers in defensive driving techniques, also found that untrained students experienced 63 percent more crashes that were considered avoidable, meaning that the driver had the opportunity to react to an adverse situation. And untrained young drivers experiences 185 percent more of the "accident avoidance" crashes involving more than one car.

Fortunately, most of the crashes were relatively minor, so the study found the reduction in injuries was comparatively small, with untrained drivers suffering only 3 percent more crashes that resulted in injuries. The untrained drivers were blamed for 31 percent more of the avoidable type of crashes that resulted in injuries.

McCartt, of the insurance institute, said the SPARC study examined too small a group to be definitive. Although the report doesn’t prove teen driver education and training helps prevent crashes, she said, a larger-scale study might. “We would welcome the opportunity to set up a rigorous investigation,” she said.

Opponents of teen driver training base much of their opposition on the only large-scale government-funded research program into the topic, which was conducted 25 years ago and may have had flaws in its execution, said Ray Ochs, director of training systems for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, a group that provides similar skill training for thousands of motorcycle riders every year.

Teens do crash because of errors in judgment, he said, but they also make physical mistakes, or simply lack experience. To be effective in improving teen driver safety, training programs must address both skills and attitudes, he said.

“We like to look at the gains that offset the negative aspects,” Ochs said. “People are going to crash, but you are going to be safer if you put into practice the skills we teach you and the strategies we provide.”

“I hope we don’t put all of our eggs in the skill training basket,” he added, acknowledging that teens’ attitudes can be difficult to change. “The soft skills are hard to get at,” he said.

Teens’ judgment has been apparently improved as the result of participating in the Honda Teen Defensive Driving School at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. First-time traffic violators who participated in the school as part of their sentence saw a 76 percent reduction in second-time offenses compared to those who didn’t take the school’s course.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission feels that motor vehicle training is so important that it is working on a new rule that will require manufacturers of all-terrain vehicles to provide a free training class with the sale of every ATV.

“We believe so strongly in training we are in the middle of rulemaking that would require it,” said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the commission. When it comes to improving safety, “a little can be done through education and a little more can be done through training,” he said. “Every little bit helps.”

Recent IIHS research shows that, like teen sex, many teen car wrecks are incidents of opportunity. They occur around the hours immediately before and after school and they tend not to involve speeding, or drinking alcohol. “The teens in our study weren’t necessarily doing anything risky,” McCartt said.

But teens were at fault in 61 percent of these crashes, suggesting that perhaps their skills were inadequate for the normal commuting situations.

Parental involvement, as ever, is an important component. Training groups say that parents’ participation in teens’ driving classes provides a common experience that can foster continued communication on the subject.

Perhaps the “abstain until you are older” crowd will end up matched with the “we can teach them to be responsible” crowd in a marriage of convenience to conduct a study of teen driver education.

For now, the nation’s top safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has no official view on the value of training, is planning to study the Driver’s Edge driver training school in Las Vegas, Nev., according to spokesperson Karen Aldana.

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