Per mile driven, teens have three times the fatal crash risk than adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, for those who survive serious car crashes, the disability and long-term psychosocial problems that follow can interfere with teens’ ability to reach their full potential.
“Keeping teens safe on the road helps to improve their health and the health of other road users, including passengers and pedestrians,” said Catherine McDonald, PhD, RN, an assistant professor of nursing in the Family and Community Health Department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing who is affiliated with the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute. She initially became interested in better understanding why teen drivers crash in her previous role as a nurse in a variety of settings — pediatric intensive care, pediatric emergency department, and schools.
“I treated many patients who suffered injuries as a result of a crash, but it was devastating when students in my school were killed in crashes,” Dr. McDonald said. “I hope that my research will translate into designing effective strategies to prevent similar tragedies.”
Working toward this goal, she worked with Dr. Flaura K. Winston and other team members at CIRP to form the foundation for a one-of-a-kind Simulated Driving Assessment (SDA) tool that measures teens’ performance in complex driving situations. The SDA is based on crash types that she and her team identified from the most frequent teen driver serious crash types in the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey (NMVCCS).
Data from NMVCCS indicated that when teens crashed, the most common types were left turns, rear-end events, and situations where they ran off the road. With these data, the SDA’s creators gathered rich descriptions of the scenarios involved in the crashes to construct roadway, traffic, and weather configurations that they programmed into a driving simulator. The SDA uses established safety metrics from the literature to assess the performance of a participant. So far, testing of the SDA has shown some promising support for its validity.
“We think we’ve opened up an exciting area of research and a new way of thinking about driving assessment,” Dr. McDonald said. “Not only does the SDA assess performance in a driver, but it also has the potential to be used in the future as a screening tool for clinicians to identify teens’ skills or deficits, or it could be used as a way to measure future interventions that we build to improve driver training.”
With multiple risk factors contributing to crashes, such as inexperience behind the wheel, weather and traffic conditions, and risk-taking tendencies of teens, Dr. McDonald also believes that the SDA could address these different domains of teen driving.
It won’t take long for the SDA to get some traction as a robust research tool for use by the scientific community. Dr. McDonald plans to use the SDA in a project funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research. The feasibility study will focus on the effects of a web-based intervention for risky driving behaviors.