Findings by Program Area

Although the purpose of this project was to obtain information to assist in the design of messages for teen drivers, so much information was learned about highway safety programs, it seemed worthwhile to pick out some of these insights and present them in the paragraphs below. Please be advised that these comments reflect the insights and beliefs of the focus and affinity group participants. These statements do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Transportation.

Driver Licensing

  • The focus groups suggest that graduated licensing programs are very hot topics with teen drivers. Not unexpectedly, teen participants reported that they do not like the restrictions that are placed on their driving, particularly restricting the number of passengers they can carry. However, when pressed most did acknowledge that it was probably a good idea for brand new drivers.

  • Not all teen participants are aware of the reasons behind the various restrictions. They are also unaware of the statistics regarding their increased risk of being involved in a crash, especially when they are carrying several passengers. Given the participants’ keen desire for factual information, driver licensing agencies might consider providing statistics about the increased risk of crash involvement when teens carry several friends as passengers. They should be local or State statistics whenever possible.

  • Many teen participants reported that the graduated licensing restrictions are not enforced, making it very easy to ignore them. Local police may need some training on how and why these laws should be more aggressively enforced.

  • A large number of teen participants reported problems backing into parked cars, garbage cans, telephone poles, and fences. Several also reported problems changing lanes and not seeing other vehicles in their blind spots. These problems may be attributed to skill deficiencies that were not addressed in Driver’s Ed. Consideration should be given to paying more attention to these two skills in Driver’s Ed and driving tests.

Impaired Driving

  • In the focus groups, teens from all these four cities had no memory of any drunk-drivingrelated messages. They feel bombarded with anti-marijuana ads, which they generally discount as being “lame.”

  • The teen participants do not see anything wrong with underage drinking and very little wrong with driving after having consumed just a beer or two. Many believe they can tell when they are too drunk to drive. Some consideration should be given to providing teens more hard data on the effects of alcohol on judgment and motor skills.

  • Most teen participants believe that marijuana does not affect their driving. Some even believe they are better drivers when they are stoned. The current marijuana campaign is not succeeding at changing this opinion.

  • Project Prom-type programs (e.g., The Grim Reaper, crashed car, etc.) are memorable, but several students commented that they only saw them at the end of the school year. Since they all agreed that the impact of these programs has a very short lifespan, it might be worthwhile to repeat them throughout the year to maintain awareness.


  • It was amazing how many teen participants reported that they could get out of getting a ticket by begging, crying, being nice, etc. One teen reported that he was in a car driven by someone who had been drinking. They were pulled over and the teenage driver had a blood alcohol concentration of .08. The officer drove them to the driver’s home and turned them over to the parents with just a lecture rather than a DWI citation. This tendency convinces kids that enforcement is totally arbitrary, based on wanting to meet quotas rather than saving lives.

  • Teenage participants report holding police officers in very low esteem. This may not be fixable but it should be kept in mind when police officers conduct assemblies in schools. The issue of quotas came up in at least half of the focus groups and should be addressed head on when talking to kids.

  • Several teen participants with the worst driving records reported that their biggest fear was getting a ticket because it put their licenses in jeopardy. These same teens said that enforcement should be stepped up significantly if the community expected it to stop kids from speeding or drinking and driving. They know where to speed and where they can do crazy things with little risk of getting stopped. Even the enforcement at the Renton Street racing areas was called a joke because there were hundreds of kids and the police just chased them away for a little while.

  • The focus groups suggest that teens might benefit from some information on what to do if pulled over by a police officer. The participants reported that they become frightened when this happens and don’t know what they’re supposed to do or how to behave. The focus groups indicated that more information could be included in a Driver’s Ed program or with their initial information from the DMV related to this topic, and that police officers might be able to distribute some information at the traffic stop as well.

Safety Belts

  • Teen participants in all four cities were aware of the Click It or Ticket campaign. As a result, fear of enforcement was the only reason some could offer for wearing a safety belt. Many reported that they only would put their safety belts on when they saw a police officer.

    Consideration should be given to capitalizing on this awareness to increase the perception of
    risk of enforcement as a way of increasing belt use.

  • Teen participants are particularly gullible when it comes to urban legends. They all can recite the stories they have heard about people being decapitated by their safety belts, being horribly burned by their air bags, or walking away from a crash when they were ejected from their vehicle. They need more factual information about what really happens in a crash and why being belted is a good idea. To be believed, however, this information may need to be disseminated as a new urban legend on the Internet. Some social marketing research should be conducted into how urban legends are generated and disseminated.

  • Teen participants know what the law is and they know that they are only required to buckle up in the front seat. They do not know that it is dangerous to ride unbelted in the back seat. When the facilitator provided some information about the risks of riding in the back seat without a belt, several teens were surprised. Consideration should be given to a campaign to educate teens about buckling up in the back seat. Parents should be encouraged to be as insistent about buckling up in the back seat as they are about the front seat. These messages should begin at an early age and continue through adolescence.

  • The teen participants who reported always being buckled up, front seat or back, did so because it was an ingrained habit, not because it was the safest thing to do. They credit their parents with instilling this habit. It is important to encourage more parents to stress the importance of buckling up in the back seat as well as the front.

Speeding and Aggressive Driving

  • Teens “feel the need to speed,” to borrow a popular quote from the movie Top Gun. They do not consider driving 5 or 10 miles above the speed limit to be dangerous. Rather, it is perceived as just keeping up with traffic, which many were advised to do in Driver’s Ed. Teen participants report that they ignore antispeeding campaigns and enforcement efforts that target this low level of speeding because they see no danger. But they need information about the very real risks of extreme speeding (speeds over 100 mph), which is very alluring to teens. Focus groups indicate they may need facts to counter the effects of popular films like The Fast and the Furious.

  • Many young male participants complain about other drivers who fail to signal their lane changes or who drive in the left lane, because they make it difficult to swerve from lane to lane at very high speeds. The young male participants believe that they are totally focused on the road ahead and can anticipate every action, thereby minimizing the risk of collision. They do not see their driving as being aggressive, just highly skilled. Steps must be taken to educate these young men about reaction times and the laws of physics.

Distracted Driving

  • Focus groups suggest that teen participants do not seem to see the relationship between the numerous things that distract them in their cars and their high rate of minor fenderbendertype crashes. A high percentage of the crashes reported by the teens involved rear-ending a car that had stopped while the teen driver was looking away from the road. If teens cannot be dissuaded from multitasking while driving, perhaps they should be encouraged to increase their following distance to provide a longer buffer zone.

  • Focus groups indicate that teen drivers need to be empowered to impose some rules on their passengers. They all recognize the risks caused by lots of passengers: tickling them, covering their eyes, shouting out directions, and egging them on to do stupid things. However, they do not seem to have the confidence or strategies for keeping their passengers under control.

  • Cell phones are not perceived as a serious risk by most teen participants, yet they complain about other drivers who do stupid things while talking on their cell phones. They do not seem to connect the many close calls that they have had while driving when using their cell phones. They need to be reminded what conditions make it too risky to answer or make a call. Consideration should be given to distributing hands-free sets at no cost, similar to earlier programs to give out free bicycle helmets as a way to jumpstart helmet use.

  • Focus groups suggest that music plays a huge part in a teenager’s life, especially when they are driving. The prospect of a long or short trip with no music is almost intolerable. Yet teen participants acknowledge that adjusting the radio or switching CDs causes them to look away from the road and that crashes can occur in those milliseconds of inattention. Focus groups indicate that teens may need some suggestions on how to accommodate their passion for music while maintaining their focus on the road.

  • One strategy for training teen participants to deal with distractions might include developing visualizations of what might happen when someone tries to answer a cell phone, searches for a new CD, or spills ketchup on his lap. These could be developed as Flash animations that can be run on various Web sites such as Hotmail or Yahoo. While the boys said they never click on links on these pages, they also indicated that they are always looking for something cool.

Drowsy Driving

  • Teen participants reported that they are perpetually tired. They report that their school schedules force them to get up much earlier than their circadian clock would prefer. Their schedules keep them on the run from early morning to late at night. Their social interests keep them up late at night. And they use their cars to get from place to place no matter how little sleep they may have had. They are desperately in need of information on how to cope with drowsiness when they drive. However they are not likely to accept any advice to refrain from driving.