Teens and driving: it doesnt have to be a dangerous mix

My dad was an ideal driving teacher. He remained patient and unruffled, even when my older brother misunderstood his instructions and pressed down on the accelerator as we rounded a sharp curve, causing the car to careen ominously toward a cemetery.

Dad has only one regret as an unofficial driver’s ed instructor: He didn’t anticipate that I’d take my driver’s test in a blizzard. That December day, thick snowflakes plummeted from the sky and blanketed the streets. Because I’d spent so much time behind the wheel, though, I demonstrated enough skill to pass the test, despite the decreased visibility and slippery roads.

Gordy Pehrson, youth traffic safety and alcohol grant coordinator with the state’s Office of Traffic Safety, says a lack of experience is a major factor in teen car accidents. That’s why it’s so important to remember that although driver’s ed classes are helpful, they only supplement the efforts of the primary driving instructors: the parents.

“It’s their opportunity and their responsibility to teach their kids; they have a vested interest in their sons and daughters, and in the fenders on their cars,” Pehrson says.

Some parents want their kids to practice in only the safest of conditions. But as teens gain confidence, they should experience as many different weather and road conditions as possible —driving on gravel roads and the freeway, at nighttime and in bright sun, through rain and snow. The best time to do that is when they still have supervision, not when they’re on their own.

Pehrson says the other accident-causing factor, which parents can’t control, is the fact that teen brains aren’t fully developed. Because teens are unable to make the same sound decisions that an adult can, and are more susceptible to peer pressure, parents must set and enforce limits on when and where teens drive, and who can accompany them.

“Parents need to realize that when their son or daughter passes the state driver’s test, it doesn’t mean the state is saying they can handle every driving situation out there,” he says. “It shows the state that they meet the minimum qualifications and have the basic skills to handle a motor vehicle. It doesn’t show that they’re a safe driver; that’s for parents to decide.”

Motor vehicle crashes remain the No. 1 cause of death for teens. Drivers ages 16–19 are involved in fatal crashes at four times the rate of drivers ages 25–69, and two-thirds of teens in these crashes weren’t wearing seat belts. But there’s good news, too. According to the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a teen driver’s risk of getting into a crash is cut in half when parents stay involved, set rules, and offer support.

Pehrson says parents should emphasize that driving is a privilege, not a right. He recommends discussing the teen’s responsibilities and establishing clear rules. Are the teens expected to buy their own gas? Will they need to maintain a certain grade point average to use the car? What will happen if the teen gets a speeding ticket? What should the teen do if a friend who’s been drinking gets behind the wheel?

Once the rules are set, enforcement is key.

“If parents don’t follow through with consequences that are clearly understood and fair, they might as well not even establish those rules,” Pehrson says.

Parents should start thinking about driver’s education long before their children are old enough to drive. They may not realize it, but they begin teaching as soon as children are old enough to observe whether their parents talk on their cell phones while driving or wear seat belts.

“If there’s a 7-year-old in the back seat, and Dad gets cut off by a bad driver and yells and cusses — the little ones are like sponges, they’re taking that in,” Pehrson says. “Driving by example is one of the key parenting messages that I think is important to convey.”

I have paid more attention to my driving lately because my daughter, Louisa, has peppered me with questions. She turned 14 in April and is anticipating taking driver’s ed classes next year.

I’m glad we have time to consider how we can best prepare her, and ourselves, for that rite of passage. I hope to emulate my dad’s calm demeanor as Louisa logs hours of driving practice in a variety of conditions. Then, when the big day arrives, she’ll feel ready for just about anything, including a blizzard.

Joy Riggs is a Northfield writer who does a commendable job of parallel parking (even in snow).