Karna Stuchlik – Essay Finalist #1

It was a sunny and unseasonably warm day in February, in the small city of Lee’s Summit, MO, outside of Kansas City. As teens raced out of school and into their cars, the unthinkable happened; an 18-year-old driving his two friends attempted to pass a vehicle in a no-passing zone while driving between 80 and 90 mph. The driver lost control of his car and hit another vehicle, injuring the other driver and killing his two friends. The teen driver was found to be under the influence of benzodiazepine and has been charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of second-degree assault for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated and causing injury.

This tragedy is repeated all too often across the United States where young drivers (ages 15-24) account for 58% of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries, while only representing 14% of the U.S. population. This disproportionate rate of motor vehicle injury and death among young drivers can be attributed to several factors, according to the CDC. , young drivers are inexperienced drivers. Driving is a complex skill that requires focus and quick thinking. Young drivers have less experience handling the challenges that accompany the operation of a motor vehicle and anticipating the actions of other motorists on the road.

The CDC lists the following causes of teen crashes, after driver inexperience: driving with teen passengers, nighttime driving, not using seat belts, distracted driving, drowsy driving, reckless driving, and impaired driving. These risky behaviors can impact drivers in all age groups, but have a much higher incidence in the teen population. Before we can suggest strategies for reducing these behaviors among teens, we must first understand what influences are present that promote the behaviors.

If we use Vital Smarts’ Six Sources of Influence™, we can fully diagnose the current state that is causing a disproportionately high rate of teen crashes. First, we’ll look at the realm of personal influence: personal motivation and personal ability. It’s possible that teens are not motivated to make safe choices when driving because they do not connect their actions with the potential risks. Further, as illustrated by the leading cause of teen crashes, driver inexperience, personal ability (or the lack thereof) might be a huge factor in this problem.

It is tempting to conclude our diagnosis here, with the assumption that if we can motivate and train teens to be better drivers, we’ll be able to reduce risky behaviors and thereby reduce motor vehicle injuries and fatalities. However, none of us lives in a vacuum, and thus we are all subject to the influence of our social group and of our structural environment.

Let us take a look at the social motivation and social ability that influences teens’ driving decisions. If the majority of teens engage in risky behaviors like texting while driving, driving under the influence, or not wearing seatbelts, it becomes a cultural norm. Teens who choose not to engage in those risky behaviors might be made fun of by their peers. Another aspect of social motivation is that teens might see their friends engage in risky behavior with no negative consequences. This can reinforce their opinion that the behaviors are not as unsafe as the adults in their life make them out to be.

A teen’s social network can not only motivate risky behaviors, it can also enable risky behaviors. Social ability is measured by the support our network gives us to perform actions. In 2013, 22% of teens reported that, within the past month, they had ridden with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. In this alarming statistic, each individual is enabling the other to make unsafe decisions.

Finally, our diagnosis of the causes behind risky teen driving must look at structural influence: the things that motivate and enable us. The constant notifications of cell phones and the motivation of instant gratification can certainly impact distracted driving. Who doesn’t want to read the text that just came in, or see how many likes their latest Facebook picture has garnered? Parents of teens might also provide an unintended and unfortunate structural motivation for reckless or impaired driving. When parents tie punishments to missing curfews, or to drinking, teens may speed to get home in time, or drive when impaired, rather than admit to their parents that they were drinking and need a ride.

How might structural forces limit a teen’s ability to practice safe driving? In some areas, teens can obtain a driver’s license without taking any driver’s education courses. There is also a wide variance in the enforcement of liquor laws throughout the U.S. Many cars, especially older models, do not ding or otherwise remind the driver and passenger to fasten their seatbelt. Cell phones can both motivate distracted driving and enable it.

Our diagnosis now includes aspects of personal, social and structural influence that might drive risky teen behaviors. To increase our chances of changing these behaviors, we must over-determine success by creating solutions that impact as many of the sources of influence as possible.

It is nearly impossible to motivate someone to do something they do not want to do. However, we can increase a person’s desire to adopt a new behavior by tying the risks to their emotions and the behavior to their values. Sharing statistics about teen deaths is unlikely to change behavior; it is impersonal and it is easy to distance our behaviors from those results. However, we can tell stories about teens who have lost their lives or caused others’ deaths in a way that appeals to the emotions and values of teen drivers. A personal story from the family of a teen driving casualty can help make the invisible consequences visible; if you don’t practice safe driving habits, you could leave your family devastated by your loss.

Many teens are involved in their communities and in their schools. They are invested in creating strong communities and being seen as individual contributors who have value to add to society. Contrasting risky driving behaviors with these values can help personally motivate teens, and remind them that their choices are moral ones. Their choices can support the communities in which they live, or they can put their communities at risk.

Personal ability is often the easiest source of influence to address. Mandatory driver’s education and defensive driving courses with continued refreshers can help decrease the learning curve inherent in becoming a skilled motorist. Deliberate practice with coaching is the most effective way to improve personal ability. Required driving time with an experienced driver can give teens immediate feedback on their driving skills.

Social influence can be difficult to address in behavior change strategies. It is crucial for teens to feel that if they engage in safer driving, they will not be ostracized by their peers. It is equally important that teens are given the tools to hold their peers accountable for practicing safe driving.

Social media is an intriguing way to address and change social norms among teens. The best communication strategy will convey an emotional message to which the teens can connect, delivered by a person whom they respect. Messages and campaigns that are specific to regions are the most likely to be effective. Smaller micro-campaigns can take place within schools and communities, where teens are asked who they most respect among their peers. Those peers can then be part of an intensive training focused on the “why” behind safe driving practices, and the “how” of delivering that information to their peers in an effective way. Respected peers are one of the most powerful ways to change the cultural norms of the group. Consider how one respected figure in Germany was able to turn an entire country drastically away from its moral values.

Last, how can we put structures in place that influence positive behaviors? Punishments around driving infractions are already severe. Successful behavior change campaigns utilize rewards to motivate positive behaviors more heavily than punishments for negative behaviors. Police officers can pull over and reward drivers who are following the rules of the road and engaging in safe practices. Insurance companies can reward young drivers with lowered rates for infraction-free time. Parents might consider motivating ways to reward their teens for safe driving, rather than relying on punishments when they slip up.

There are many structures that can enable positive behavior change. Apps are available now that can disable your cell phone when you are in the driver’s seat of a moving vehicle. Insurance companies have technology that can monitor vehicle speeds, hard stops, and excessive acceleration. New cars emit an annoying ding if the driver is traveling without fastening his seatbelt.

The problem of teen driving casualties is pervasive and persistent. Although strategies are currently in place to help reverse the trend, successful behavior change will only be seen and sustained with a multi-pronged approach that addresses all six of the sources of influence. Mandating extended driver’s education courses won’t fix the problem of driving while intoxicated. Installing an app to disable your teen’s phone in the car won’t make any difference if his friends make fun of him for using it. Imposing stricter penalties for those who cause drunk driving fatalities won’t bring back the lost lives.

Behavior change can happen. It happens when all of the influences supporting the change outweigh the influences that resist the change.