How to help reduce the risks for teen drivers

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legs out car window

In general, I don’t think we take teen driver safety seriously enough. The expectation is once you turn 16, you’re road-ready. Teenagers feel they are entitled to a license and some freedom, parents feel they are entitled a break from acting as an unpaid Uber driver and everyone else expects these inexperienced drivers are proficient enough to be behind the wheel on their own.

In reality, that’s only the case some of the time rather than all of the time. For National Teen Driver Safety Week, I think we should be a little more candid about the reality of teen driving and a little more realistic about our expectations.

Not all teen drivers are equal

Incidentally, turning 16 doesn’t automatically mean you’re ready to drive. I wasn’t.

Growing up, my dad let my brother drive his pickup truck around our property well before he was 16. When it was time for Hayden to get his learner’s permit, he’d already been driving for years. It came easy to him. My parents never worried.

I was another story. I didn’t want to drive. I was horrified at the idea. I had anxiety about spacing, breaking, passing, being in traffic, turning and, especially, backing up. My dad got so frustrated with me, he left the task of teaching me to drive to my mom. And even she didn’t seem too confident I’d ever be road-ready.

Despite all their doubts, my parents gave me the time I needed to figure it out. They provided opportunities for me to drive on short trips, on back roads. They adjusted their expectations to the reality of the situation and didn’t expect me to do anything I wasn’t ready to do. They let me progress at my own pace and at 16 years and 5 months old I got my license (and it only took me two tries).

Even after I had my license and my own vehicle, I still only took trips my parents knew I could handle. Mainly, driving to and from school and sports. My dad bought me a 1993 Ford Explorer because he wanted something I’d “have a good chance of surviving in if I crashed.” And he was a smart man. I’ve never been in a traffic collision, but that Explorer survived backing over mailboxes, bushes and ditches. It had 4-wheel drive for snowy roads and it only went as fast as a practical vehicle should. It got me through my early years as an inexperienced driver and kept me safe.

I’m forever grateful my parents were patient enough to be realistic about my individual needs throughout my teen driving years.

Driving misconceptions

A lot of times, I think people are under the misconception that because so many people drive, it’s easy. That kind of thinking is a mistake. Just because a lot of us do it every day doesn’t mean it’s easy. Driving is a learned skill and acknowledging that is important. It goes hand-in-hand with every other safety tip.

By treating driving like you are learning any other valued skill or trade, you’re building a solid foundation of fundamentals you’ll carry with you throughout your driving days.

Speeding

In nearly a third of teen driver fatalities, speeding is a factor, according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. This is something to nip in the bud from day one. Starting out, I never had an inclination to speed due to the anxiety I had, just being behind the wheel. However, after I got used to driving on my own I fell into a pattern of going faster than I was supposed to be. Once I developed that habit, rushing to get to school on time in the morning, it was a hard one to break. I might not have gotten the tickets to reflect the risky behavior until my 20s, but the habit was already there.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration recommends the following tips to reduce the incidence of speeding among teen drivers:

  • Get Involved, monitor your teen’s driving and watch for speeding so you can correct it.
  • Be a good role model, don’t speed.
  • Hold up on buying your teen a new car. Teen drivers are less likely to speed in a shared family car.

Distracted driving

I had a hard time with distractions when I was driving throughout my teenage years. It always seemed like it took every ounce of focus I had to get from point A to point B.

As the oldest of my group of friends, I got my license first. While it was kind of cool to be the first, it also meant more responsibility. If we were going somewhere on the weekend, I was driving. Between music and conversation, it could get a little distracting. I once ran three consecutive lights, missing the first, responding to someone in the back seat and the second two worrying about the first. Granted, the lights were no more than 100 yards apart, but I still missed three of them in a row. It only takes a split second to cause an accident. I just got lucky.

Add a smartphone to the equation above an imagine how much more dangerous my driving becomes on a regular basis. According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, dialing a phone number while driving increases your teen’s risk of crashing by six times, and texting while driving increases the risk by 23 times.

Teens can also be distracted by eating, fixing makeup, changing the radio station and a number of other things. No matter what’s causing the distraction, any distraction is dangerous. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration recommends the following tips to reduce the incidence of distracted driving among teen drivers:

  • Talk to your teen. Remind your teen often that driving is a skill that requires the driver’s full attention.
  • Familiarize yourself with your State’s graduated driver licensing law, and enforce its guidelines for your teen or create your own rules if necessary. Restricting the number of passengers your teen can have, or the hours your teen can drive, is a very effective way to minimize distraction for your teen driver. Talk about the consequences of distracted driving and make yourself and your teen aware of your State’s penalties for talking or texting on a phone while driving.
  • Set consequences for distracted driving. If your teen breaks a distraction rule you’ve set, consider suspending your teen’s driving privileges, further limiting the hours during which they can drive, or limiting the places where they can drive.
  • Bee a good role model, keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel while driving. Be consistent between the message you tell your teen and your own driving behaviors.

Drunk driving and drugs

There’s no place for drugs or alcohol on a teen driver’s agenda. However, 16 percent of drivers 15-18 years old, who were involved in fatal crashes in 2016, had been drinking, according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration recommends the following steps to reduce the incidence of drinking and drug use among teen drivers:

  • Educate your teen on the consequences of underage drinking, illicit drug use and over-the-counter and prescription drug misuse.
  • Never provide alcohol to teens.
  • Tell your teen that driving while impaired by drugs is illegal, too. The use of drugs can affect their ability to drive a vehicle safely, which includes illegal drugs, drugs prescribed by a doctor for them or for someone else and some over-the-counter drugs. Teach your teen about zero-tolerance laws.
  • Remind your teen that it is never safe to ride in a car with someone who has been drinking alcohol or using drugs. If there is even a suspicion of alcohol or drug use, your teen should decline the ride immediately. Let your teen know that they can call you or another trusted adult for a safe ride home if they need one.
  • Make the consequences clear. Remind your teens that they face adult consequences for driving after using alcohol or drugs. Make sure your teens know that if they violate underage drinking laws, they face a trip to jail, the loss of their driver licenses, and dozens of unanticipated expenses including attorney fees, court costs, and other fines. Remind them of the added embarrassment and humiliation in getting arrested. Drunk- and drugged-driving convictions can even compromise academic eligibility, college acceptance, scholarship awards, and more.

Seat belt safety

Seat belt safety is something that has to be stressed from a young age to build a good habit. My recommendation would be to make sure your children are buckled overtime they are in a vehicle and when they are old enough to buckle themselves, make sure they do so.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration recommends the following steps to increase the incidence of seat belt use among teen drivers:

  • Let them know buckling up is the law.
  • Set the example, wear your seat belt.
  • Remind them that seat belt safety is important.

Drowsy driving

The most at-risk group for drowsy driving includes drivers 17-23 years old, and those who sleep less than six hours a night, drive on rural roads or who drive between midnight and 6 a.m. In 2016, drivers between 15 and 18 years old accounted for almost one out of every 10 fatal drowsy driving crashes.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration recommends the following steps to reduce the incidence of drowsy driving among teen drivers:

  • Make sure your teen is getting enough sleep.
  • Limit your teen’s driving late at night.

Other factors to beware of

Just as the more common factors listed above can increase your teen driver’s risk behind the wheel inclement weather, animal mating seasons and peer pressure can also play a role. Make sure to talk to your teen about driving under circumstances where any one of those factors could impact a driver and discuss the precautions that should be taken.

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