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Teens point to superhero-like invincibility when it comes to risk of being injured from motor vehicle accidents: study

Age and agility seen an advantage in dealing with poor driving conditions or intoxicants compared to experienced drivers, teens say

Toronto, August 14, 2008

Like Spiderman who can leap from tall buildings unscathed, teens see themselves as invincible when it comes to trauma-related injuries, especially those from motor vehicle crashes, according to a study lead by a St. Michael's Hospital trauma surgeon. What's more, these high school students consistently underestimate risk and the human error in motor vehicle collisions, blaming poor vehicle or highway design.

"Students need to comprehend that it is lack of judgment, not only lack of skill, that increases the risk of injury to one's self and others. Not wanting something bad to happen is simply not enough," said St. Michael's Hospital assistant trauma director and lead author Najma Ahmed. "In addition to giving teens the knowledge and teaching them the technical skills, injury prevention programs must also address teens' attitudes about being immune to illness and death as a means of changing high-risk behaviors, such as driving while impaired."

Teenage drivers have the highest motor vehicle crash and fatality rate of any demographic group. This is often related to several factors including infrequent seatbelt use, high rates of speed and impairment from drugs or alcohol. Risk perception and attitudes about injury among this group has not been reported in the scientific literature. The study, published in the August issue of the journal of the American College of Surgeons, is the first to assess these perceptions and attitudes.

Researchers evaluated 262 high school students participating in a one-day injury prevention program sponsored by the Toronto District School Board and St. Michael's Hospital's injury prevention program. Findings from the study found teenagers consistently underestimated the risk in situations. Comments from students included:

  1. Pretty sure that I would be okay after crashing the car, cars are pretty safe."
  2. "There is a delay at the light change, it's a built in safety thing so that almost always you can go on yellow."
  3. "Either way – taking a cab or driving after drinking – probably you are going to get home."

The study also revealed that students believe that vehicle and highway design were more likely to cause motor vehicle crashes than human error. Participants felt that because of their age and agility, they were better able to overcome the effects of poor driving conditions or intoxicants compared with more experienced drivers. This youth, teens felt, protected them from death. Many felt medical care, especially in young people, is virtually always effective.

While existing injury prevention strategies fall short of countering these flawed beliefs, further work around injury prevention must align with that of market research to ensure injury prevention messages are effectively delivered and reiterated, the authors said.

"If we wish to achieve harm reduction from injury in this high risk population, relevant and effective messaging must be embedded longitudinally into health and driver education curricula, beginning in the formative primary school years through to the completion of high school, because knowledge and interest fade with time."

St. Michael's Hospital is a large and vibrant Catholic teaching and research hospital in the heart of Toronto. Affiliated with the University of Toronto, St. Michael's Hospital leads with innovation, and serves with compassion. Renowned for providing exceptional patient care, St. Michael's Hospital is a regional trauma centre and downtown Toronto's designated trauma centre for adults.

Contact Information

For more information, contact:

Julie Saccone
Media Relations
St. Michael's Hospital
416-864-5047
SacconeJ@smh.toronto.on.ca