Published Jan/Feb 2007

Teens have terrifying crash rates, but here are 10 valuable tips to keep them crash-free.
By Joseph D. Younger

f you’re a parent with a new driver, these facts will keep you up at night: Traffic crashes rank as the No. 1 killer of American teenagers. Teen drivers have the highest collision rate of any age group, and teens who have driven a year or less have the worst crash rates by far.

Behind the wheel, teens endanger not only themselves, but also everyone else on the road. In fact, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that pedestrians, passengers and occupants of other cars account for nearly two out of three fatalities in teen crashes.

Crash rates are high for young drivers because of their immaturity and lack of driving experience, which cause them to commit more driving errors and take unnecessary risks. Indeed, the crash rate for 16-to 19-year-olds is four times the risk for older drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And the risk of crashes rises with each additional passenger in the car.

You can do more than simply lose sleep about the problem. Although you can never absolutely, positively crash-proof a new driver, the following 10 steps will reduce the risks in a big way.

1. Size up your teen’s maturity. In assessing your teen’s readiness to drive, the ability to make good decisions counts more than age. But measuring maturity can prove tricky. Certainly, academic performance can serve as a surrogate yardstick. Does your teen get good grades, complete assignments on time and generally take responsibility for schoolwork, without your nagging? If not, you might want to reconsider handing over the car keys.

For some teens, socialization serves as an even better indicator than schoolwork, notes Dr. William Van Tassel, AAA’s director of driver training operations. “How do teens interact with parents, siblings and other family members?” he asks. “Do they respect other people? Do they think things through before they act? Are they impulsive?” Maybe you think such social skills bear no relation to the psycho-motor skills required behind the wheel. But driving is basically a social activity. You need to know the rules, respect others’ rights and keep your temper to stay out of trouble on the road as well as in life.

Not all teenagers get a license as soon as they become legally eligible, and those who don’t usually get along just fine. Some pass up driving out of choice. “I think I had more fun by not driving,” says Camille Garrenton, a 20-year-old Ohioan who didn’t get her license until she entered college. “I never really partied hearty in high school. And I got to know a lot of the older kids better, because they gave me rides to soccer practice and other places.”

Others don’t drive by their parents’ choice. “My dad didn’t think I was mature enough to drive,” says Hannah Glatz, who grew up in Elgin, Ill., smack in car-crazy suburbia. “I, of course, thought I was. But I’m the youngest of four kids, and I think he just wanted to postpone the ‘final freedom’ for me, the last one. My friends teased me about it at first, but after a while it was no big deal.” Now a college junior in Chicago, Glatz still doesn’t have her license–and is in no hurry to get it. “Sure, I want to drive someday,” she admits. “It’s just not high on my list of priorities right now.”

2. Drive the way you expect your kid to drive. Here’s a discomforting truth: Bad drivers beget bad drivers. According to a recent study sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, teens involved in crashes are much more likely than crash-free teens to have parents with bad driving records, as measured by the number of tickets and collisions. “This suggests that the teens’ driving behavior is a reflection of the parents’ driving behavior,” conclude researchers. The correlation holds regardless of parents’ educational level or socio-economic status.

Like it or not, you become a behind-the-wheel role model for your teen long before he or she reaches driving age. Did your child grow up seeing you ignore speed limits, yak on the cell phone or gesture rudely to other drivers? Then why be surprised if your kid does the same as a teen?

3. Practice, practice, practice. Your teen needs you even more after getting a learner’s permit and starting driver education. “Parents must stay involved,” says Larry Lonero, principal of Northport Associates, a consulting firm specializing in safety training and research. “Regardless of how good the instructor is, parents must take an active role. The more involved you are, the lower the risk will be.”

“Essentially, the parent should become the teen’s practice coach,” says Dr. Frederik R. Mottola, executive director of the National Institute for Driver Behavior. That means scheduling regular over-the-road sessions, knowing the specific skills and techniques covered in the curriculum, reinforcing them during practice, correcting mistakes calmly and providing plenty of praise when your teen does well.

4. Just say no to peer passengers and night driving. Statistics overwhelmingly identify the two biggest risk factors for teens as driving at night and having other teens as passengers. The more passengers, the higher the risk. Such stats have prompted states to pass graduated driver licensing laws that phase in night driving and number of passengers, among other things.

AAA clubs across the nation have been instrumental in getting these GDL laws passed, and a AAA Foundation-sponsored study shows that such legal restrictions really do reduce new-driver crash rates. But you can do even better. “Parents always have control,” notes AAA’s Van Tassel. “You can set limits tougher than state laws.” Setting stricter curfews and prohibiting all non-family teen passengers for the first few months of driving are ways to give your teen the chance to log valuable solo time in lower-risk conditions.

5. Limit other distractions. Cell phones, CDs, iPods, fast food, mascara–the list of potentially dangerous behind-the-wheel distractions goes on and on. Of course, you can’t monitor your teen’s behavior every minute in the car. But you can model safe behavior by avoiding such distractions yourself. And insist that your teen not eat, use a phone, root around for CDs or scroll through iPod playlists while the vehicle is moving.

6. Set clear consequences and stick to them. Just as traffic-law violations earn tickets and other penalties, violations of family driving rules should bring consequences, too. Depending on the offense, they might run from doing extra chores around the house to reducing the number of driving hours per week, to further restricting the number of passengers, to losing driving privileges for a specified period of time.
Good behavior should have consequences, too. Experts emphasize that positive feedback–especially rewards for good behavior–reinforce the learning process for new drivers.

7. Put everything in writing. Once you and your teen agree upon the conditions and restrictions for driving privileges, as well as the consequences for violating them, spell them out on paper, just to make everything clear. Of course, your teen must agree to wear his or her seat belt, observe speed limits, say no to alcohol and drugs and obey other laws.

In addition, the agreement should spell out your teen’s responsibilities to maintain the vehicle and pay for driving expenses. How much should he or she contribute to gas, regular upkeep and insurance? You can decide, based on your own financial circumstances.

Putting everything in writing does more than make the conditions clear. It also hammers home the point that driving is serious business, not something you or your teen should take lightly. (AAA offers a brochure, Driving Contracts, that offers specific guidance and sample provisions for a parent-teen agreement. See story on following page to obtain a copy. To download a copy of the contracts, visit www.AAA.com and click on the news/safety section.)

8. Schedule Sunday summits. According to the AAA Foundation study, parental communication ranks as one of the most important traits separating crash-free teens from crash-prone ones. Simply put, better parent-teen communication leads to better driving.

How can you tackle a problem that has plagued parents for generations? For starters, AAA’s Van Tassel suggests holding regular “Sunday summits.” Gather round the kitchen table every few weeks to review your teen’s driving performance, as well as the conditions and restrictions you’ve set. “If there have been no violations after 90 days, then maybe you can agree to let your teen have the car an hour later on weekends or some other reward,” suggests Van Tassel. “A summit is an easy-to-use trigger system to mete out rewards and implement consequences, as well as a time when you talk about nothing but driving.”

9. Get high-tech help. Although you can’t ride everywhere with your teen to monitor his or her driving habits, you can do the next best thing. Several companies offer event data recorders–so-called “black boxes” that keep track of maximum speed, acceleration rates, instances of hard braking and other parameters that indicate aggressive driving. Some EDRs even sound alarms when the vehicle exceeds certain pre-set limits. They can cost as little as $200 plus installation.

Understandably, many teens might balk at what they consider electronic eavesdropping. Whatever you do, don’t install an EDR surreptitiously. Secrecy only defeats the EDR’s real purpose–discouraging risky behavior. For example, you want your teen to think twice about speeding, knowing the EDR will catch the incident even if the police don’t. However, you must commit to faithfully downloading EDR readouts and reviewing them together in your Sunday summits. Better yet, use an EDR to monitor your own driving behavior and share the results with your teen. That way, everyone will view the black box as a family safety check, not just a tool to snoop on kids.

10. Let your teen use the safest car. Often the family’s oldest car becomes the hand-me-down teenmobile, even though it may not be the wisest choice. It stands to reason that the least experienced driver should use the safest car.

Size matters in a collision, and large sedans make up in crashworthiness what they lack in cool. The latest safety technology–side airbags, anti-lock brakes and stability control, for example–helps, too, if you have a vehicle so equipped. Absolutely avoid small, high-powered sports cars, convertibles (which have higher injury rates) and SUVs (which tend to roll over). If your best efforts fail and your teen does have a crash, you’ve done your best to maximize protection.

AAA offers free information to teens

Learning to drive is an exciting, frustrating and anxious time for parents and teens alike, but AAA offers a free packet of brochures to make the transition easier.

The first brochure, Welcoming Your New Driver, is designed for parents and features stress-reducing practices to help safeguard your teen. It can help you choose the right car for your teen and the right driver training facility if you don’t have the time or temperament.

The second one, Becoming the New Driver, is aimed at helping teens learn how to make good decisions about every aspect of operating and maintaining a vehicle. It explains that driving is not a right but a privilege that carries with it great responsibility.

The final brochure, Driving Contracts, contains a parent-teen driving agreement that spells out the rules of driving. It also features a parent-to-parent agreement that encourages parents to work together as a team.

For free copies, send a self-addressed, stamped business-size envelope (with two first-class stamps) to: AAA, New Driver Packet, 12901 N. Forty Drive, St. Louis, MO, 63141. Or visit the news/safety section of www.AAA.com.

Above: The more involved parents can become in their teen’s driver training, the lower the risk of the teen being involved in a crash. Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images

Title: Novice drivers need plenty of practice behind the wheel in order to become safe drivers. ©Jupiter Images Corporation

Below: Parents and teens should put driving conditions and restrictions in writing to show that driving is serious business. George Doyle/Stockbyte Platinum/Getty Images

Program helps teens learn safe driving
To help teens gain vital experience behind the wheel without the risk, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety developed Driver-ZED 3.0, a computer-based DVD program that helps novice drivers recognize and avoid hazards. “ZED” stands for Zero Errors Driving, the overall goal of the program.

Originally developed as a CD-ROM program, the new DVD version has been updated and puts teens into 100 live-action situations. Teens must scan video clips, spot risks and choose the safest action. Teens learn to see danger by experiencing it on the computer instead of behind the wheel.

The DVD is easy to install and features gaming-like flair. Minimum system requirements include: Intel Pentium III 400 mhz processor; Microsoft Windows 2000 operating system; 128 MB RAM; 120 MB free hard disk space; 1024 x 768 monitor resolution at 24 bit; and 1x DVD-ROM drive.

The price is $20, which includes shipping and handling. The price also includes a $5 donation to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a non-profit organization dedicated to traffic safety research and education. To order, call 1-800-222-7623, ext. 6300, or visit online at www.AAA.com and click on the news/safety section.

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