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Could a tour of the ER, ICU and morgue improve teens' driving?

Motor vehicle wrecks are the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths among American teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in every three accidental teen deaths in the U.S. involves a traffic crash. What kinds of interventions are effective at reducing the risky behaviors often seen in teen drivers such as texting, using cellphones, speeding, and riding with an intoxicated driver?

A recent study in the journal Transportation Research explored the effectiveness of a "Reality Education for Drivers" or RED program. The Texas program involved 21 teen drivers who had been referred to the program for dangerous driving behaviors. It is a supplemental risk reduction program added to ordinary driver education programs. Many insurers, government agencies, hospitals and private companies are beginning to offer programs like this one.

The RED program involved a six-hour day in a hospital setting. The teens were given tours of the emergency room, the intensive care unit, and the morgue. They talked with healthcare professionals who worked with crash victims. The day also included videos, lectures, discussions, and activities.

At the beginning of the program, researchers asked the teens to fill out a questionnaire about their driving behaviors in the past 30 days. The risky driving behaviors the teens reported most often included texting, cellphone use, driving on the interstate, and driving between midnight and 6 a.m.

They also completed questionnaires asking them to identify risky driving behaviors and to rate their risk of engaging in those behaviors. Most were able to identify drunk driving, speeding, and not wearing seatbelts as risky. However, only a few recognized driving on interstates, listening to the radio, and having more than one teen passenger as potentially risky.

Finally, the participants were given a test about risky driving concepts, with questions such as "What is the legal limit for blood alcohol content (BAC) for those under 21?" (The answer in Tennessee and most states is 0.02 percent).

At the end of the program, the teens demonstrated an increased awareness of the dangers of speeding and of peer influences on drunk driving. Overall, they showed increased awareness of the consequences and had a better sense of how to reduce risky driving behaviors.

There wasn't enough evidence from this small study though to say whether this greater awareness translated to changed behavior. Only six participants completed a follow-up survey two months after the program. Of those six, only four had actually driven. All of them reported texting and cellphone use, and two acknowledged having driven at least 20 mph over the speed limit.

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