Erie, Pa. — It may come as no surprise that auto crashes are the top killer of U.S. teens. According to the National Safety Council, young drivers aged 15 to 20 are involved in fatal traffic crashes at more than twice the rate as the rest of the population.

But a recent survey by Erie Insurance Group and Lookin' Out, the insurer’s teen driving awareness program, reveals that most teens consider themselves to be good drivers.

The disconnect occurs in the answers given to a survey conducted in spring 2008 by 2,127 licensed drivers aged 16 to 19 at 16 different Lookin’ Out participant schools, in which most respondents (91%) said they believe they're driving safely.

Yet further answers revealed a number of risky behaviors:

  • Cell phone use among teens is high (76% regularly talk on a cell phone while driving)
  • Text messaging while driving is common among teens (57% sometimes or often read or send text messages while driving)
  • Most teens (93%) play loud music when they drive
  • Nearly half (48%) admit they're easily distracted when friends are passengers

"These survey results also reveal a real discrepancy between how students perceive their own driving behaviors and how they judge others' habits behind the wheel," says Mark Dombrowski, public relations supervisor at Erie Insurance, Erie, Pa.
And while 91% consider themselves good drivers, only about one-third (34%) say their friends are good drivers. Further, nearly all (97%) of the respondents reported seeing other teens taking risks (speeding, not wearing seatbelts, etc.) while driving.

For many personal lines P&C carriers, technology is the key tool being used to deal proactively with the reality of teen driving fatalities—from both a behavior-changing and underwriting perspective. According to a new report from Boston-based Celent, “Vehicle Data and Telematics: What Does the Future Hold for the Insurer,” telematics and event data recording can provide modeling data to determine new pricing variables and improve the quality of current variables.

“This can allow insurers to price more finely and, thus, increase their appetite for risk,” says Catherine Stagg-Macy, Celent senior analyst and author of the report. Personalized pricing also becomes possible by using historic telematic-derived data about the individual.

“Knowing such individual-level data could be a better predictor of future behavior than traditional broad-stroke actuarial tables,” she says.

For underwriters, tracking data devices can provide validation of annual mileage, commute distances, garaging location and other key pricing variables that are linked to leakage. Predictive scoring on a driver’s potential behavior can be used in the underwriting process. Whether the pain of a policyholder’s increased premiums affects driving behavior, however, remains to be seen.

Even car manufacturers are aware of the need for safety-driven technology. Within North America, OnStar is available from General Motors, and Sync is available from all Ford, Lincoln and Mercury products. Within Asia-Pacific, Japan appears to be most advanced in making this technology available in new vehicles. For example, GBook Alpha comes standard in most Toyota vehicles.

In Europe, says Macy, adoption of telematics has been slow compared to North America. That said, telematics solutions are available from BMW, Mercedes, Fiat, Jaguar, Land Rover, Peugeot Citroen and Volvo. And a handful of U.S. auto insurers have begun offering in-car cameras to help parents monitor their teenagers' driving behavior, hoping to reduce the number of crashes involving young motorists.

Erie’s take on teen safety has as much to do with education and behavior-changing than it does with technology. The obvious discrepancy in its teen survey respondent answers validates its Lookin' Out program, which has 72 participating schools for the current school year. The program is unlike other teen driving programs because it's rooted in positive peer influence, notes Dombrowski.

"Each activity is created by teenagers for their peers," added Dombrowski. "We believe that helping to make teenagers better drivers will make the roads safer for everyone."

Lookin' Out schools create and implement activities to address the risks covered in the survey, such as:

  • Seatbelt use
  • Speeding or reckless behavior
  • Limiting the number of passengers in the car
  • Alcohol and drug use, and their effects on driving
  • Eliminating distractions such as cell phones and loud music

"Teens need to be aware of the dangers and avoid taking unnecessary risks while driving," says John Brinling, Erie Insurance president & CEO. "And it's equally important that they avoid riding with others who are engaging in risky behaviors such as speeding, text-messaging or driving under the influence."
Erie also has instituted a 20-something blogger named Matt Hubert, who regularly updates teens online with stories about his own driving challenges and distractions and how he’s resolving them.

Sources: Erie Insurance, Celent, INN archives

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