a blog for parents of teen drivers



July 2014
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Reid would have turned 25 today.  He died at age 17 in December 2006, the driver in a one-car crash, eleven months after getting his license.

During the past seven years, I have heard one question more than any other:  ”It never goes away, does it?”  Today, some thoughts on “it.”

As I have written on this blog, the tears have mostly subsided, and piercing pain has morphed into tolerable sadness.  Our emotional state is, if nothing else, sustainable.  Most of the time we can recall happy memories without dissolving.  We disassembled the Reid Hollister Museum, his perfectly preserved room, which we kept for two years until a friend pointed out that it was blocking us from moving on.  We have taken stock of, and are thankful for, the small mercies in Reid’s life.  We are grateful for family, friends, our church, and our community for steadfast support of Reid’s memory. We have developed a nationwide circle of friends and supporters in the traffic safety community, which has allowed us to participate actively in trying to make sure other families are spared our ordeal.  We take great pride in the fact that Reid has become one of the faces of safe teen driving in the United States.

So what are we left with?  What has not changed?  What has not gone away?

Speaking now only for myself, every day, I wonder what Reid would be doing today had he lived.

I think this mindset has something to do with being a history major in college.  One of my professors enjoyed giving exam questions that he called “counterfactuals”  - if this or that fact in history had been different, how would the world have evolved differently?  For example, he asked us, what if the British in 1776 had decided that the colonies were not worth the trouble and had left America to fend for itself?  The idea was to get us to understand the forces and trends of that time and how they would have played out.

So, Reid was handsome, funny, and energetic. He was at his best working with young children.  He was a consummate schmoozer; he could laugh or talk his way into or out of anything.  He was a whiz with electronic communication.  Girls and women swooned in his presence.  He struggled with his ADHD (though he had it more under control as he got older).  He was not a great student.  He did not like the cold New England weather. He enjoyed adventure, though deep down he was scared of things, like performing in front of a big group.

Projecting what I think would have happened:  I can see him working with young children, maybe as an elementary school teacher, but he also liked what money can buy, so I think he might have gravitated toward sales. Maybe in Florida, to escape the cold.  I told him not long before he died that I could see him talking his way past a receptionist, charming the boss, and closing a sale.  He liked to travel (or more accurately, he was not one to sit in one place for long), and could use his laptop and his cell phone to communicate with dozens simultaneously.  Whatever he would have been doing, he would have had an army of friends who delighted in his entertaining company, and most likely he would have a very pretty girlfriend and a few wannabes.

This is the image currently in my head.  I like it.  It’s sustainable.  Maybe it will change as the world does and I see different places he would have plugged in his talents and compensated for his shortcomings.

For now, this image will do.

As always, thanks to so many of you who carry Reid’s memory in your hearts and carry the mission of safer teen driving in your communities.

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The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has performed a great public service with a new report saying that many teens drive cars that lack important safety features; identifying what features parents should look for if buying a car for teen; and ranking used cars by brand and model for their safety features, or lack of them.  The report is similar to IIHS’s well-established “Safety Pick” rankings of new and used cars, but this is the first study to focus exclusively on cars for teen drivers.

I am pleased to report that many of the study’s safety feature recommendations are consistent with Chapter 17 of my book Not So Fast: Parenting Your Teen through the Dangers of Driving.  More on this below.

The IIHS study reports that among 500 parents surveyed, 43 percent said their teen drives a vehicle that was purchased around the time that the teen got a license.  Not surprisingly, a large share of these cars, 28 percent, are mini or small cars.  The study reports that 29 percent of fatalities among 15 to 17 year old drivers were in mini-cars or small cars.

IIHS’s safety feature recommendations are that teens should not drive high horsepower (generally understood as more than 300 HP) engines; they are better protected in bigger, heavier vehicles; and electronic stability control, which is standard on 2012 models and after, is the single most important feature.  Side airbags are also noted as critical to safety ratings.

Kudos to IIHS for undertaking this work.

But now for my cautions for parents of teen drivers, drawn from Chapter 17 of Not So Fast.  Research performed by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia shows that teens who have “primary access” to a car drive more miles and have higher crash rates, which is why my first Not So Fast caution to parents is that if they are considering a car for their teen, the first thing to consider is no car at all.  Parents who buy a car for a teen soon after he or she gets a license are acting contrary to this safety research. The 43 percent number reported in the IIHS survey is frightening.  In addition, my first piece of advice to parents about teen driving is to not put their own convenience ahead of their teen’s safety. If parents are buying a car for their teen because it will make their lives easier, they are violating this important safety principle.

This said, I recognize that there are some situations where, for family reasons, usually economic, teens may need a car, and if the reasons are economic, buying a new car with the best safety features may not be an option.  This is where the new IIHS study comes in handy, by pointing out the safety features to look for and ranking used cars by how many of them they have.

In summary, the IIHS study documents the problem of teens driving less-than-safe cars, and recommends which cars parents should consider, but the study should not be interpreted as telling parents that it is safe for them to buy a car for their teen.  If a car is a necessity, the IIHS study is invaluable information, but if it isn’t, wait until your teen has substantial experience behind the wheel, or until the car really becomes a necessity.

Here is the link to the IIHS study:

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Many of the largest insurance companies who insure teen drivers, and some technology companies as well, now have “apps” that parents may use to monitor their teen drivers.  Some of the insurers offer discounted premiums for families who install their app.  In general, these apps monitor and transmit to parents data on the teen driver’s vehicle such as speed, time of day that the car was driven, hard-braking events, and vehicle location (also known as “geo-fencing”).

In general, I am a fan of these apps.  For as long as I have been publishing this blog, I have advocated that parents who can afford it buy and install technology that monitors their teen’s driving behavior.  We might call this “surveillance,” even if that term does have the negative connotation of snooping or failing to trust a teen, but my view is that anything that induces teens to follow teen driving laws and their agreements with their parents about driving behavior, and monitors driving habits, is a good thing.

Consumer Reports has published articles comparing the features, reliability, and cost of these apps, so if you are thinking of buying one, I would recommend consulting CR’s archives.

However, I want to draw an important distinction among the apps out there for teen drivers.  I am NOT a fan of apps that “disable texting.”  There are varying models, but most involve either intercepting incoming text messages with an automatic reply saying “____ will call you later, he is driving right now,” or else they prevent the teen driver from sending any texts while driving.  I have several concerns about this type of app.   First, some of these systems can be overridden.  If parents have imposed this type of app on the teen and teen is an objector, the teen will find a way around it.  Second, if the cellphone is sitting in the cradle next to the driver, at least part of the distraction is still there.  Third, is it really effective to deploy one piece of technology to defuse another?  Why not just put the technology that is causing the problem in a place where it won’t be a problem?  This is why I advocate for new drivers that the cell phone goes in the glove box before the ignition is turned on, and it stays there until the ignition is turned off.  Harsh and hard to enforce?  Yes.  More effectively than an app that purports to disable a texting function?  I think so.

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I recently received a message from a person involved with commercial driving schools, criticizing my book Not So Fast because on the back cover it lists as one of the book’s topics, “Why Driver’s Ed does not produce safe drivers.”  Let me set the record straight about this misunderstanding.

In Not So Fast and on this blog, my messages to parents are that (1) Driver’s Ed is essential, because teens need to know the rules of the road and how to operate a motor vehicle safely; but (2) parents should not think that a 15-16-17-year-old son or daughter who has finished a Driver’s Education course is a safe driver who no longer needs parent oversight.  I only caution parents that Driver Education cannot overcome the reasons that teens have the highest crash rates, starting with the unchangeable biological fact that the human brain is not fully developed until we reach about age 25, and the last part of the brain that develops is the part that provides judgment and restraint — critical safe driving skills.  My message is not that Driver’s Education is not worth the cost or time.  My book supports Driver Education and driving schools, because parents who understand the dangers of teen driving are more likely to understand the necessity and value of what driving schools do.  As a result, my particular message to driving school owners and instructors is that, “Parents who are well educated about the dangers of teen driving are your best customers.”

As proof that this is my message, in addition to the book itself, I invite a visit to the book’s website,, click on Book / Media Coverage, and watch any of the on-line videos of my presentations to parents.  The November 2013 presentation at the Simsbury Library and the April 24, 2014 Fitch High School video are good examples.

I have enjoyed an excellent relationship with many driving school owners, who have read the book and endorsed it as a resource.  Driving school owners have written glowing reviews of Not So Fast.  I have been invited to speak to parents by several Connecticut driving schools.  I receive e-mails regularly from driving school owners and driving instructors thanking me for educating parents of their students.

As the saying goes, we should not judge a book by its cover.

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This past Sunday, The New York Times carried an article called, “Why Teenagers Act Crazy,” by Dr. Richard Friedman, of New York.  The article contains an interesting variation on much of the research on delayed teen brain development, explaining that because different parts of the brain develop at different times, teens experience high levels of fear and anxiety for several years, until the part of the brain that provides judgment and restraint finishes development, by around age 25.  By that point, the restraint/judgment function essentially takes control of the fear and anxiety and conquers most of it. We call this maturity.  In other words, while delayed brain development is often linked to risk taking and a penchant for doing dangerous things without realizing the level of danger, Dr. Friedman casts the problem as inadequate brain response to fear and anxiety.  Here is the link to the Times article:

Bill Seymour of the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles circulated the article among those involved here in Connecticut in safe teen driving.  In response, I posted this comment:

My two cents:  As most of you know, delayed teen brain development is a central theme of my blog, my book, and my presentations.  It seems to me that the usefulness of this relatively new science to safe teen driving is that it gives parents a biological reason to err on the side of caution, and it allows them to evaluate driving danger without passing judgment on the character or personality of their sons and daughters, or the quality of their own parenting.  The immature brain is a biological characteristic that they can do nothing about, except factor it into their supervision.

Then Mario Damiata, a longtime leader on safe teen driving for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), chimed in with this thoughtful response on the implications of all of this for regulators and policy makers:

I agree that the science of immature brain development does offer parents insight on how to understand the issue of teen driving in a nonjudgmental and supportive way and to err on the side of caution as it were. It is not precise enough, however, to offer policymakers sufficient insight into which laws and regulations along the enforcement/education continuum to implement. Therefore GDL laws must be broad based in their coverage of risk-taking behaviors that most contribute to death and injury. Education programs must equally open ended in their philosophy of effective behavioral change strategies.


Regrettably, the world of laws and regulations that govern driving behavior by definition must be judgmental and include consequences. This is not a bad thing since they can serve as a complementary tool to the strategies that parents and advocacy groups can implement as the first line of defense. They can also complement broad social norming efforts such as the DMV annual video contest.


I did not want the article to be interpreted in a way to make policymakers believe that there is nothing that can be done. Highway safety programs by their nature hold drivers responsible for their risk taking behaviors (failure to use a seat belt or child safety seat, impaired driving, etc.). With GDL laws, we will just enforce regulations with more enlightenment and understanding of the contributing factors leading to those risk taking behaviors while actively respecting and promoting the outreach offered from a supportive and active parental constituency.

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During the past few months, as I have been making presentations to parents about safe teen driving, I have ended with a suggestion on “Where To Start,” that is, how parents of teen drivers can best prioritize and focus their energies.  My formula, intended to be easy to remember, is P-A-C-T-S, which stand for Passengers, Alcohol, Curfews (night driving), Texting, and Seat Belts.  I tell parents that focusing on these five biggest dangers in teen driving will not make their teens safe drivers, but at least parents will know that they are focusing on the right things.

The irony of all of this is that I also confess to my audiences that I am not an expert on alcohol. As the saying goes, I know enough to be dangerous.  Still, in my talks I generally refer parents to two of the best programs I am aware of for alcohol manage, which are MADD’s power of parents, and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility’s program,   And I will continue to recommend these programs as among the national leaders – great information from organizations with tremendous experience.

Meanwhile, I recently received the link below, which struck me as a very good compilation of national materials and resources about teen driving and alcohol. Although I try to shy away from blog posts that constituent advertising, I concluded that this one has such valuable content for parents of teen drivers that I would agree to pass it along.  Here is the link:

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I am passing along a link to a first-rate article on fatigue and drowsy driving, written by Dr. Mark Zonfrillo of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which is one of the leading research hospitals in U.S. on safe teen driving:

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Two weeks ago I made a presentation about teen driving to a group of parents in White Plains, New York.  During the question and answer period, a woman identified herself as a single mother and said that her son is 17 years old and “much bigger and stronger than I am.”  In other words, she was having a great deal of trouble controlling him, including his driving.  She asked what she should do.  Like everyone in the room, I was immediately empathetic to her situation.  It was difficult to listen to the despair in her voice.

Noting that what I had to say was easier said than done, I offered three pieces of advice.  First I said that, as hard as it might be, if her son is taking the car without permission and driving dangerously, then she needs to consider getting the police involved.  A son in trouble with the law is better than a son who is injured or dead.  That’s just reality.

Second, I advised that she use a parent-teen driving agreement, and that she make signing it non-negotiable.  In other words, unless she and her son agree on the rules for taking and using the car, then she should ban him from driving until they do so, and of course build into the agreement when and how driving privileges will be lost due to misconduct.  (Again, easy to say, harder to do, but at least something.)

Third, I reminded her that as with some aspects of being a single parent, she should try to get help, to not think that she must go it alone.  My model parent-teen driving agreement has a provision for a third-party mediator, maybe a relative or neighbor, someone who can be called on to intervene and settle things down in a heated moment.  I told the mother that she might be surprised how many people would be willing to undertake this role.

This mother’s comment certainly highlighted that controlling a teen driver is hard enough for any parent, but especially tough for a single parent.  A parent-teen driving agreement is a way to introduce some rules and enforcement, short of turning over an unruly or misbehaving teen to law enforcement.

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National Safety Council warns parents of the 100 deadliest days for teen drivers

Memorial Day kicks off dangerous period as many teens are out of school, free for summer

Itasca, IL – Summer might be a carefree time of the year, but the National Safety Council urges parents not to be carefree about the situations in which they allow their teens to drive. Memorial Day marks the start of a period commonly known as the 100 deadliest days for teens on the roads. From Memorial Day to Labor Day in 2012, nearly 1,000 people were killed in crashes involving teen drivers, according to NSC estimates based on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. More than 550 of those killed were teens.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in the U.S., and teens crash at three times the rate of more experienced drivers. Possible reasons for the spike in these crashes include:

  • Summer driving tends to be more recreational and not as purposeful, such as driving to see friends rather than driving to school or work
  • Teens could be carrying friends more frequently and passengers increase the risk of a fatal crash involving a teen driver by at least 44 percent
  • Teens may stay out later at night, when crash risk is higher
  • With warmer weather and clearer conditions, teens may be tempted to speed
  • More drivers are on the roads. Americans drove more than 780 billion miles between June, July and August in 2013, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

“Putting our teens behind the wheel is the most dangerous thing we do as parents, and summer is an especially deadly time,” said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO at NSC.  “While state laws allow teens to drive, parents have the opportunity and the obligation to establish ground rules and expected behaviors for safe driving. Parental engagement improves the odds for young drivers returning home over the next 100 days.”

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WFSB-TV and its reporter Kim Lucey broadcast the piece linked below yesterday, May 14.  Attorney Richard Hastings of Ridgefield, Connecticut, who handles driving injury cases, has been very involved in the Connecticut DMV Commissioner’s Teen Driving Advisory Committee, and is the parent of a teen driver, was instrumental in setting up this interview.

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