This week is National Teen Driver Safety Week, a time to focus on helping teens become safer drivers. The No. 1 cause of teen deaths in America is automobile crashes. After nearly a decade of dropping, the number has begun to rise over the past couple of years. Some 240, 16- and 17-year-old drivers were killed in crashes nationwide in the first six months of 2012 – a 19 percent increase over the same period in 2011.
The theme for this year’s National Teen Drivers Safety Week is parental involvement. Parents have a significant influence developing their teen’s driving behavior. Most states require a parent (or licensed driver) to directly supervise a teen’s driving before he or she can acquire a license. Capitalizing on this instructional time, the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles now provides The Parent’s Supervised Driving Program, an instructional tool to help transform parents into better driving instructors. Sitting in the passenger seat, pumping the imaginary brake, parents are ultimately transformed into driving coaches – navigating the “rules of the road” with their teen.
As driving coaches, parents have three key responsibilities:
Become informed on current teen driving laws. Help enforce the current teen driving laws.Commit to spending as much time as possible with their teen behind the wheel.
In order for teens’ driving skills to improve, they need experience. Thus, it is imperative that parents ride with their teens and challenge their driving proficiency as often as possible. A seminal 2012 study by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia stated that “involved parents, who set high expectations as well as nurture their young drivers, will see their children more likely to drive safely at far greater rates than teens with permissive or uninvolved parents.” When parents are engaged, teens are much less likely to crash, drive while intoxicated or distracted, and they are much more likely to wear a seat belt.
As a support to parental authority, every state has passed some form of the Graduated Driver Licensing laws. Such laws have proven effective in improving teen safety by limiting some driving conditions until teens gain experience. Many states – including Maine – have implemented a driving curfew and placed restrictions on teens driving with other teens.
However, laws are ineffective without parental involvement. Involved parents are in the best position to gauge whether their teen has matured as a new driver, whether they are capable of driving in varied real-life circumstances: at nighttime, on highways or in inclement weather. If their teen is not ready, parents can – and perhaps should – consider delaying their teen’s licensing until they are ready. Furthermore, it is equally important for parents to continue supervision of their teen, even after licensing, by setting early driving curfews and other safety restrictions, as well as remaining an active driving coach.
Today, parents can even help extend their supervision through technology. Parents can install a simple tracking app to record speeds, hard stops and starts, and fast cornering. Other apps exist to block cell phones from receiving or sending text messages. Inexperienced drivers, who are still learning and developing their driving skills, are particularly susceptible to distractions. By using these safety tools, parents can take an active and preventive role to help refocus their teen.
Parental involvement, the theme of this year’s National Teen Drivers Safety Week, is particularly pertinent. A September State Farm Report revealed a potentially dangerous disconnect between teens and parents regarding teen driving laws. Less than half of teens who responded to a survey said they always follow laws about night driving or the number of passengers allowed. Meanwhile, most of the parents said they believed their child followed the laws. The study also found that parents are often unaware of how much their teens text while driving. This divide is disturbing.
It is understandable that many parents would prefer to avoid driving with their teens; being a driving coach requires patience, knowledge, and boundless courage. Despite these qualms, it is important for parents to recognize and embrace their inherent importance as driving supervisors and monitors for their teens. It is only with active parental participation that we can ensure our teens become safe drivers – a change that will ultimately help eradicate crashes as the number one killer of our children.
Jeff Larson is president of the Safe Roads Alliance based in North Andover, Mass. He is a former television traffic reporter for WCVB Channel 5 Boston.