When Kids Drive

What's a parent to do when a teen starts to drive? Read this report to learn what you can do to reduce the risks facing your family's newest driver.

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A driver's license is one of the most easily attained documents in the United States. In most states, new drivers need only pass a vision test and a written exam based on knowledge of traffic safety rules to obtain a learner's permit. Then with a minimum of on-the-road practice, a young person can easily pass the requirements for an unrestricted license. When you also consider that a first-year driver tends to overestimate his ability behind the wheel, it's no wonder kids are at risk.

The risks are substantial: Teenagers make up only 6.7 percent of drivers but account for 14 percent of drivers involved in fatal auto crashes. At 16 years, inexperience leads to 43.2 crashes per million miles driven. (By contrast "veteran" 17-year-old drivers experience 30.3 crashes per million miles.)

Why are teens the worst drivers? Because too many are easily distracted risk-takers. All too often, they fail to see a dangerous situation developing as they fiddle with radio dials, get swept away by their favorite songs, or pay more attention to their passengers than to oncoming traffic.

Another reason teens experience a higher percentage of crashes is simply that many have had little road experience, especially on dark, rainy nights and on slick streets.

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Keep Teen Drivers Safe

Although several states are wrestling with solutions to the problems of teenage drivers, many families aren't waiting for their legislators to take action. Here are some strategies you can implement at home to make sure your young drivers get off on the right track.

  • Give her supervised practice on the road (even after she receives a license). This way you can observe and reinforce the formation of good driving habits and slowly provide more difficult driving experiences -- rush-hour city traffic, poor weather conditions, and freeways. Pilots must log a minimum 40 hours of supervised flight time before receiving a pilot's license. Parents can require teens to log 35 to 40 hours of supervised driving, documented on index cards kept in the car's glove compartment.
  • Choose a safe car for your new driver. Buy a car of substantial size and weight -- a tank would do nicely -- with shoulder harnesses, air bags, and antilock brakes, if possible. Avoid performance cars, and insist a seat belt be worn at all times -- or the keys are yours.
  • Offer your teen a driver's education program that includes classroom as well as on-the-road practice. In your day, your school probably provided free driver's ed. That's history in most school districts. Whether you choose a school-based program for which you pay a fee, or a private school, classes are a must. These programs help develop good driving habits, and the teachers are more relaxed than you would be with your teen. "We provide 30 hours of classroom and six hours on the road," says John Blackshire, a long-time driving instructor. "But we suggest that parents give an additional 24 to 30 hours of road experience before taking teens for their driving test. The more experience, the more mature the driver."
  • Draw up a "driving contract" complete with rules, responsibilities, and consequences. Many families don't allow first-year drivers to drive with passengers, or to drive after dark without an adult. Others don't allow their kids to ride in a car with a first-year driver. Some parents also insist on a certain grade point average -- many insurance companies provide a "good student" discount. Don't be afraid to deny privileges for even minor rule infractions.
  • Encourage your teen to join S.A.D.D. Students Against Destructive Decisions is a nationwide club available in many high schools that promotes designated drivers and the absence of intoxication while driving. Students sign a "contract for life" which states that they promise to call a parent for a safe ride home if they are ever in a dangerous situation. For information about starting a S.A.D.D. club, contact them via their Web site, below.

SADD

  • Support laws regarding teen driver safety. Write to legislators recommending graduated licensing, zero tolerance laws, and Cinderella laws that limit nighttime driving.
  • Be a good role model. Surveys show that parents often don't practice what they preach. Always use good driving habits, wear your seat belt, and follow traffic safety laws. You are your teen's best example. One parent in Pennsylvania took this one step further. Joseph Abramek, impatient for legislators to take the lead and concerned about how he could lower the odds of his two teenage daughters becoming statistics, developed a driver-monitoring program. "Drive-Safe" is based on the 1-800 HOW'S MY DRIVING? stickers seen on commercial trucks. In Abramek's program, parents place a sticker on the teen's car asking other drivers to call an 800 number when they see a mistake or have a close call with a new driver. "Driver monitoring is not for parents who want to spy on their teenagers," Abramek says. "It's a service that allows parents and teens to keep the lines of communication open and to correct mistakes before they become ingrained behaviors." While he trusts his daughters behind the wheel, Abramek says he realizes that they're inexperienced -- and he would rather learn about their mistakes through this program than an emergency room doctor. Though your teen driver will test the limits of your concern and patience, this knowledge and these strategies can make this time a valuable learning experience for everyone.

Two strategies have emerged as states look at legal reforms aimed at curbing teen driver accidents:

Graduated Licensing

Graduated licensing provides young drivers with a controlled progression to unrestricted driving in three stages: a minimum length of time on a learner's permit with supervised driving practice, a restricted license for a specified time allowing unsupervised driving under certain conditions, and then a full license provided the driver has had no accidents or violations.

So far, 37 states plus the District of Columbia will have have approved some form of graduated licensing by the end of this year. While restrictions vary from state to state, Michigan's law is currently ranked among the best by driver safety groups. Teens can first earn a six-month learner's permit just before their 15th birthday, and may practice on the road with a licensed driver over the age of 21. To receive a restricted license, they must complete an introductory driver's education course, and their parents need to certify that they have completed 50 hours of supervised driving, including 10 hours at night. After passing an advanced driver's education course and a road test, 17-year-olds who have held this restricted license for at least six months are eligible for an unrestricted license, but must remain accident- and violation-free for 12 consecutive months.

Currently 24 states require some parental supervision of driving.

Zero Tolerance

While graduated licensing may safeguard those young drivers whose crashes are related to inexperience, statistics show that among fatally injured teen drivers, almost 30 percent had been drinking before the crash. Peer pressure and the need to experiment with new situations may entice teens to drink, but combine this with their immaturity as drivers, and you're faced with a deadly cocktail.

State legislators and local governments have investigated a number of plans to prevent the problem of teenage drinking and driving. All states and the District of Columbia now have 21-year-old minimum drinking age laws. These laws have reduced accident deaths for 18 to 20-year-old drivers by 13 percent, saving about 15,667 lives since 1975.

Also, all states plus the District of Columbia have instituted zero-tolerance laws. This means that drivers under the age of 21 with more than a trace of alcohol in their blood are considered to be legally intoxicated and face immediate suspension of their driver's license. The threat of losing a license may catch a teen's attention quicker than anything, including trying to instill a fear of injury or death.

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