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Mental Health is Key to Traffic Safety. SADD Advocates Explain Why.

July 16, 2021

Partnered with Students Against Destructive Decisions

Woman driving a car

When we get in the driver’s seat, we know to check our mirrors and adjust if necessary. What if we also checked our minds to make sure we’re in the right mental state to drive?

That’s a practice Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) would like to build into our culture, starting with the youngest drivers. 

SADD is an organization founded by students to empower young people to make safe decisions in their everyday lives. Mental wellness, they say, is integral to making good driving decisions.

“Studies have followed really young drivers and show that those experiencing negative emotions had unsafe driving behaviors… excessive speeding, tailgating, and potentially distractions,” said Isabelle Boullier, national president and student representative of SADD.

She spent eight weeks this summer working for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) looking at issues facing young drivers, including mental health.

Our Mental State Shapes Our Driving Decisions

Human drivers make hundreds of observations and decisions every minute, including when to turn, when to switch lanes, when to merge, how far to stay back, when to brake, and when to turn on windshield wipers and lights. 

Boullier said managing all these decisions can be difficult enough for experienced drivers, but especially so for young drivers. Teen brains are still developing. Teens also experience major changes like adjusting to new schools and managing friendships and family dynamics.

“Times of chaos and distress can affect our thought processes and decisions,” Boullier emphasized.

Car crashes continue to be a leading cause of death for young people in the U.S., with alcohol, drugs, and other substances involved in a large percentage of those incidents.

“At the root of all this is mental wellness,” said Rick Birt, president and CEO of SADD, emphasizing that anxiety and negative life events can shape how we interact with the world, including when we drive. “If we think that we are not in a state to drive, we probably should not be driving.” 

Birt said drivers can pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and make sure they are in a state of mind that’s appropriate to be driving.

“If you have had a stressful day, if you are upset with a friend, if there has just been a breakup, if there has been any sort of trauma in recent moments, you may not be in the best head space in order to drive,” he noted. 

An Urgent Need To Protect Teen Drivers

SADD is ramping up efforts to keep teens safe on the road in 2021, especially as multiple factors create a perfect storm of traffic safety risks. 

One of the risks stems from how teen drivers have missed crucial opportunities to gain driving experience over the last year. 

“As teens lack experience, that is one of the things that makes them most prone to crashes,” Birt said. “For the past 18 months, we have all kind of been homebound.” 

At the same time, NHTSA has reported that traffic fatality rates increased nationwide in 2020 during the pandemic and attributes the increase to unsafe behaviors such as speeding and driving under the influence. All this increases danger to young drivers.

“American drivers are a lot more impatient than they were a couple years ago,” Boullier said, highlighting another cause of today’s unsafe road conditions. “Not only are teens trying to navigate driving, they are also dealing with really impatient drivers.”

Advocacy, Support All Part of the Solution

To raise awareness, SADD is working to normalize conversations about mental wellness and distributing resources.

Together with the National Road Safety Foundation, SADD has created the Passport to Safe Driving toolkit as a refresher for young drivers and parents on the most important facts and skills to keep in mind as they get back on the road. The toolkit is available digitally, in print format, and includes a podcast. 

Boullier encouraged teens to find ways to manage their stress, such as journaling or decompressing with a hobby.

“We all have negative emotions, but it is what we do with them that is really important,” she said. “We don’t want them to build up inside of us, but channel them in a healthy way.”

If teens or parents suspect that someone is struggling, Boullier said it’s okay to ask them if they are doing okay. “You might be the one person who opens the door to them getting them help.”

She emphasized that parents, friends, and teens can encourage each other to check their mental wellness every time they drive so that the habit is established at the earliest stages of driving.

“Parents can say, ‘Hey, it seems like you are getting really impatient right now. Why don’t we take a few moments to pull over and decompress,’” Boullier said. “Friends can say, ‘Hey, you look a little stressed right now. Do you want to pull over and grab something to drink at this cafe, because it seems like that situation was very stressful.’”

The Potential of Autonomous Driving Technology

Birt believes autonomous driving technology could make our roads safer for everyone by providing a driver that is never distracted or angry behind the wheel.

For example, Waymo’s fully autonomous driving technology is designed to simultaneously follow road rules, remain constantly vigilant, perceive and differentiate other road users, and make safe driving decisions.

“Autonomous driving technology doesn’t feel that emotion, that strain, that anxiety or that depression that can sometimes impair our ability to drive just as a substance we might have,” Birt said, adding that the technology can create stability in a world of change, especially for young adults.

“Waymo can be that consistency to get them where they are going safely.”

*Riders must be 18 years old to ride alone with Waymo One.

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