In the driver’s seat

My 15-year-old son, Sebastian, had his first taste of night driving a few months ago. He and I had attended a meeting for students who had recently completed or were taking driver’s ed training. Since we had his permit along with us, I suggested that he drive home. 

Until then, his behind-the-wheel experiences had been limited to brief, daytime trips between home and school. Things went fine as he turned on the headlights and drove from the parking lot to a cross street and stopped at the stop sign. Then as he turned right, he took the corner a little too tight, and I felt a bump as the right front wheel went over the curb.

“Sorry! I’m sorry, Mom,” Seb said.

“It’s OK,” I reassured him. “The car’s fine. Just keep calm. Breathe. And keep driving.”

Keep calm, breathe, and keep driving. It’s my new mantra, now that I’m the parent of not just one, but two teen drivers. My 17-year-old daughter, Louisa, has had her license for a year, and Sebastian has had his permit since August. Entering the world of teen driving has been exciting, occasionally scary, and a good demonstration of experience being the best teacher.

Louisa is a cautious driver, and as she’s put more miles behind her, she’s successfully taken on more challenging situations. When she backs out of the driveway now, I no longer peek out the window, worrying, “Will she remember to look for pedestrians? Will she use her turn signal?”

Because she’s paved the way, I’ve felt a little more relaxed as Sebastian takes his turn behind the wheel. But I remain mindful of the sobering statistics.

Ability & risk

According to the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety, traffic crashes are the number one killer of the state’s 16- and 17-year-olds. Each year, more than 30 Minnesotans ages 16 to 19 are killed in car crashes. The risk of being involved in a crash is highest the first few months after teens get their licenses, when they overestimate their abilities and underestimate their risks.

At the driving meeting Seb and I attended in November, a state trooper told the audience that the State Patrol makes a point to call them crashes and not accidents because they are caused by someone doing something wrong.

For teen drivers, the top risk factors for crashes are failure to wear seat belts, inattentiveness or distraction while driving with other teens, driving at night, speeding, and fatigue. That’s why Minnesota has passed a graduated licensing law that seeks to minimize these risks. 

Minnesota’s law restricts the number of non-family passengers newly licensed drivers under age 18 can have in the car and the nighttime hours they can drive:

• For the first six months of licensure, only one passenger under age 20 is permitted, unless accompanied by a parent or guardian, and for the second six months of licensure, no more than three passengers under age 20 are permitted.

• For the first six months of licensure, driving is prohibited between midnight and 5:00 a.m., unless the driver is accompanied by a licensed driver age 25 or older, or is driving due to a job.

Teens and parents should also be aware of these other important rules: It’s illegal for drivers under age 18 to use a cell phone, except to call 911. It’s illegal for drivers of all ages to text, read text messages or emails, or access the internet while their vehicle is moving or in traffic. And, as we should all know by now, seat belts are required for drivers and passengers of all ages.

It’s reassuring to know that parental influence plays an important role in helping teens be safer drivers. According to studies conducted in 2009 by the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, when parents set clear rules and paid attention to where their teens were going and with whom, and did so in a supportive way, their teens were half as likely to crash, 71 percent less likely to drive while intoxicated, and 30 percent less likely to use a cell phone while driving. They also were twice as likely to wear their seat belts.

What has helped in our family, in addition to setting clear rules, is making sure that my kids get numerous hours of supervised practice in a variety of conditions. It’s nerve-racking to let them drive in the snow and ice, but they have to learn sometime. It might as well be while I’m in the seat next to them, repeating: Keep calm. Breathe. Keep driving. 

Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to [email protected].

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