Keeping An Eye On The Road...And On Teen Drivers

Cynthia Bowers is a CBS News correspondent based in Chicago.
For the last year or so, I've become particularly attune to stories about teenagers killed in traffic accidents. Maybe it was because I have a teenage daughter or maybe it was because, for a while here in Chicago, it seemed every weekend there was another deadly crash. One accident that really got to me involved four high school boys who had sneaked out for a joy-ride. The four were spending the night together and borrowed the family car without the parents' knowledge. Police believe they were speeding when they hit a concrete light pole killing two of them. The parents had no way of knowing the teens had even left the house—until police showed up on their doorstep.

And that December night in 2005, 17-year-old Dan Noble and 16-year-old Robert Oakes became two of the 5,288 teenagers to die that year in car crashes. According to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety the risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among 16-to-19-year-olds than any other group. Per mile driving, teen drivers ages 16-to-19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash (IIHS 2006). Risk is highest at age 16. In fact, the crash rate per mile driven is twice as high for 16-year-olds as it is for 18-19-year-olds.

In one of life's grand coincidences I was asked to put together this piece on teenage driving on the very day my own teenage daughter began drivers' ed classes. Although she's driving very carefully so far, it's impossible to know what she will do when she turns 16 and gets her license --and I'm not in the car with her. Will she talk on the phone, or God forbid, try and text while driving? Or might she pick up friends without my knowledge? It's scary to even contemplate.

Our piece, produced by Mark Hooper, shows what happens when a pilot project put cameras into teenagers' cars-- cameras that took pictures looking out the windshield and back at the driver. Every time the teenager made a mistake such as slamming on the brakes, taking a turn too fast, or having an accident, the camera made a recording of it and the videos were then sent to parents who watched them with their kids. Parents were able to see if their kids were paying attention to the road and teens were able to see exactly "what went wrong." CBS News viewers can watch as well. Teenagers who participated say what they learned in the study proved to be eye-opening, and possibly life-saving. A few who were involved in accidents say having a video record actually served to help prove they weren't at fault.

University of Iowa researcher Dan McGehee found that teens who were riskier drivers made 90% fewer mistakes after seeing themselves on camera. But he also found that beginners think they are better drivers than they really are. And that over-confidence may have played a role in a deadly crash in Chicago this past weekend, when a car filled with teenagers ran off the road, killing two young people and critically injuring the three others.

Behind the wheel of a car, split-second decisions can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. And as much as my husband and I try to prepare our daughter, I know letting her get behind the wheel alone will take a huge leap of faith.