Teens Behind the Wheel
With the advent of my son's 16th birthday came some new and challenging experiences, especially driving. While many teens look forward to this milestone birthday, parents riding shotgun know the often scary and startling statistics that come with teen driving. If you have a teen driver in your home or soon will – listen up. There are some things that both parents and teens need to know.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that 16-year-old drivers get in wrecks nearly nine times more often than those ages 20 and over. For 17-year-olds the rate is six times higher than the adult rate. According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), teens account for only 7 percent of all drivers, yet they are involved in 14 percent of all fatal auto accidents and 20 percent of all accidents.
The statistics are scary and seem to reflect poorly on teen drivers. However, facts and figures are not a personal reflection of every teen's judgment. But sweet 16 or not, teens and their parents need to be aware of the numbers and understand how to decrease the chances of harm and increase the chances for safe, crash-free driving.
What You Can Do
Although most states still license drivers at age 16, it's not a magic number indicating that your teen is experienced and safe behind the wheel. "Young drivers need to have experience, because they often don't realize what's involved with operating a motor vehicle," says Norma Cooper of the AAA Motor Club. "They have great reflexes, but they have no frame of reference to put their judgments in."
Only you can decide when your teen is ready to drive without adult supervision, and riding with your teen while he practices on a learner's permit is a great way to judge his skills. If your teen is not logging 30 minutes to an hour of practice each week, you're wasting precious learning experiences. All those errands and after-school activities around town are perfect trips for driving practice. "I just can't stress enough about getting experience behind the wheel," Cooper says.
When a teen gets a license, she's still gaining the experience she'll need to be a safe driver. Rather than simply handing over the keys, it's up to parents to set rules and guidelines regarding when, where, how and with whom teens may drive. Here's a list of some important guidelines:
- Limit the number of passengers in the car. Teens are likely to have trouble concentrating on the road with laughter, music, food and other distractions, which increase with the number of passengers.
- Insist on seatbelts. Teens tend to use their safety belts less frequently than other drivers do. Insist that your teen and all passengers wear safety belts at all times.
- Limit driving during high-risk times. Statistics show that the highest numbers of driving crashes occur on Friday and Saturday nights and early Saturday and Sunday mornings. Limit teen driving during these peak times.
- Take a "no tolerance" stance on drugs and alcohol. Aside from any legal punishment, a violation of driving under the influence should be cause for the revocation of driving privileges by parents.
- Have your teen sign a safe driving contract. Explain how seriously you take the contract.
Although licensing practices vary from state to state, several states have adopted the graduated driver's license (GDL), including Florida and California. It's a three-stage licensing system. Some states have a two-stage licensing program, and parts of Canada, Australia and New Zealand have similar programs.
"[Having a] graduated driver's license means you get your learner's permit, take a class in high school, and then before getting your license, you must log 25 hours behind the wheel," Cooper says. The newer system requires teens to hold their permits at least six months prior to getting a license, log practice hours behind the wheel and receive no moving violations. It also increases the age at which full licensure takes place in some states from age 16 to 17 or 18.
Statistics prove that these states are saving lives – teen lives. Elsewhere, however, the system hasn't been implemented. Because it's new, the concept has been met with some opposition and confusion. Opponents to the graduated system view the restrictions as a penalization of teen drivers. Supporters say it's not meant to punish young drivers but to train them better.
Sue Anne and Steve Duffy, a Memphis, Tenn., couple who lost their 16-year-old son in a collision involving a vehicle driven by another 16-year-old, have tried unsuccessfully to get the Tennessee State Legislature to approve the graduated driver's license system. State Representative Tommy Head, who has opposed the GDL bill, cites it as another example of legislature in people's lives. Opponents of GDL think parents should enforce these restrictions on their teens without making them law.
However, even under the GDL system, teens who have completed 25 to 50 hours of driving are allowed to drive alone. They have to be off the road by a specified hour, which ranges from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. in different jurisdictions. Some states limit the number of young passengers who can ride with a teenage driver. Others suspend licenses after two moving violations.
The evidence suggests the benefits are substantial. In the first year that Florida's GDL system became effective, the Insurance Institute found that the number of fatal and injurious crashes involving 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds dropped 9 percent. Other GDL states see similar results. In neighboring states where GDL has not been adopted, there has been no decrease in the teen death and injury rates from collisions.
What About Driver's Ed?
For decades, driver education classes were believed to help prevent accidents. While there's no proof that the high school courses reduce crash numbers in the long term, it's not a bad idea for teens to take the course, which is still required in many areas.
The AAA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are currently designing a state-of-the-art driver education curriculum that they hope will become part of the GDL program. Driver education focuses on defensive driving. The skills taught, such as anticipating problems and knowing how to correct them, are crucial abilities for teen drivers to master.
Another obstacle for teens is winter driving. Parents should work with teens to help them gain the experience they need to safely drive in ice, wind and snow. "Young drivers may not have any frame of reference for what it's like to be on an icy highway or overpass," Cooper says.
Under close supervision, teens need practice with slow-speed maneuvers on an open snow- or ice-covered parking lot. Have your teen practice hard breaking and steering in skidding situations. Make sure tires and brakes are in top condition. Always make sure the vehicle is equipped with the proper emergency gear for winter, including a flashlight, blankets, jumper cables, sand and a small shovel or ice scraper. And finally, teach teens to use far more caution during hazardous winter conditions.
"If the signs say slow down, go even slower than you really think is necessary," Cooper says.
Preventing teen drivers from becoming statistics and helping them master the skills needed for good driving is the goal of both parents and organizations such as the AAA and NHTSA. Through strict parental rules, continued practice and education, state programs like GDL and driver education classes, parents and teens can work together to put teens on the road to safe driving.