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DRIVING

A mother recently asked me how she could deal with her own anxiety about her son’s driving inexperience without being an interfering mother.

She is not the only one worried about teen drivers. I just reread a committee report of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) entitled “The Teenage Driver” (Pediatrics, November, 1996).

Why did the Committee on Injury Prevention and the Committee on Adolescence address this issue? Because the statistics are very troubling.

The motor vehicle fatality rate of teens is higher than that of any other age group. The 16-year-old is 20 times as likely to have a car accident as is the general population of drivers. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in young people ages 16 to 20. Teens 16 through 19 make up 5% of licensed drivers and drive 3% of miles traveled but are involved in 15% of fatal motor vehicle crashes. For every teen killed 100 are injured, and car crashes are a leading cause of disabling head and spinal cord injuries in this age group.

The AAP report cited five basic reasons for these awful statistics:

1) Teen drivers lack experience, especially when it comes to judgement and decision-making.

2) Risk-taking behavior is prevalent among adolescents and their driving habits are greatly influenced by peers.

3) Night driving is inherently more hazardous and teens drive disproportionately more at night.

4) Alcohol and other drugs add to the problem; alcohol is involved in a third of fatal teen crashes.

5) Sadly, only about 35% of youth age 10 to 20 use safety belts.

What can be done? A graduated licensing system is one proposed intervention on the horizon with the potential of saving teen lives. Currently, all but one state has a 2-tier license system: a learner’s permit which allows the new driver to operate a motor vehicle only when accompanied by a fully-licensed driver, followed by a regular driver’s license.

A graduated license system would have THREE stages: a learner’s permit, a provisional license (which could require driving supervision during high-risk hours, a night curfew, “zero alcohol tolerance”, restriction of the number or ages of passengers, or other control measures), and a regular license. Some states have already adopted some of these measures resulting in a reduction in teen accident rates.

The AAP recommends that pediatricians advocate such legislative changes, emphasize safe driving behavior when seeing young people and their parents, and encourage and support research in the prevention of teen crashes and risk-taking behavior.

Parents also have a role to play. Parents should set a good driving example from Day One, by wearing and requiring seat belts, not speeding or taking other driving risks, driving courteously, and never drinking and driving. Children model parental behavior, starting when they are very young. Parents cannot set a poor example in front of young children and then expect their teens to listen to safety advice.

Parents should also establish driving limits on their teens. For many years I have suggested that parents drive with their teens during the day for three months and at night for at least six months before handing over the keys. I did this — or close to it — with my own teens. Such advice does not make parents or pediatricians popular with teens because driving is such an important rite of passage in our culture. But we parents don’t always win popularity contests with our kids.

The AAP suggests parents limit the number and ages of passengers, restrict night driving, and delay the onset of unsupervised driving AS THEY SEE FIT (emphasis mine). Not only does Driver’s Education offer only a limited number of driving experience hours, but the instructors do not know your children as well as you do. Parents should take the time and effort to drive with their teens until the teen demonstrates both good driving techniques and judgement.

I understand parental anxieties about their teen behind the wheel. You know your child lacks the experience and judgement needed to be a competent driver. You also understand the importance of autonomy to your teen and realize or remember how important it is to be trusted to do a good job on your own.

There are two times in a parent’s life when we have to “let go” against our better judgement. When our toddler climbs higher than we like to see, or our teen engages in risk-taking behavior — it’s awfully scary. Yet let go we must, AFTER MAKING SURE WE HAVE DONE ALL WE CAN TO MAKE THE CHILD’S BEHAVIOR SAFE. In the case of the toddler we gradually let the child climb higher. We should do the equivalent for our teens by gradually allowing more driving freedom.

Wouldn’t it be great if all the parents at a given high school got together and created a neighborhood policy of parental restriction on teen driving? We could start saving lives even before any legislative changes took place if all parents agreed to supervise new drivers, restrict night driving, and limit passengers.

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