I am not an adolescent psychologist, but I don’t think I’m risking my credibility by observing that, in general, teenagers often operate in their own little world, focusing on themselves and how they fit in with their peers, regarding themselves as immune or invulnerable to life’s dangers. “The bigger picture” and “teenager” rarely belong in the same sentence.
And we, as parents, are asked to entrust car keys to these limited-vision beings.
So how do we get teen drivers to acknowledge and internalize the risks of driving, and to modify their behavior? Obviously, teens are capable of protecting themselves. They know not to step off a cliff, to jump into the path of an oncoming train, or to touch a high-voltage wire. How do we push driving into this category of clearly understood dangers?
In driver education (whether received from a commercial school or parents / guardians), and in materials provided by motor vehicle departments, police, schools, and advocacy groups, two approaches predominate: gruesome videos and photos; and getting teens to understand the consequences for their families, friends, and communities of bad driving decisions. Herewith, a strong vote for the second approach.
(Once again, not going out on a limb,) I observe that teens in our society are desensitized to blood, guts, gore, body parts, mangled cars, and crash scenes. Simply put, millions of people pay money to go to the movies just for the thrill of seeing exactly these things – high-speed car chases, crashes, and explosions, and injury and death.
The most prominent, recent example of the gruesome approach to safer teen driving is the “Gwent County Video,” produced last year by a police department in the United Kingdom. The video shows the slow-motion death of several girls in a car whose driver was texting. I would emphasize that this video, packed with heads snapping back, twisted metal, dislocated body parts, and blood, has been a worldwide hit on YouTube. It has been popular, I think, not because it graphically demonstrates the dangers of texting, but because it shows injuries and death in slow motion. Its effect is titillating, not cautionary.
Thus, videos and photos of automobile crashes and injuries, are, at least, not very effective in sensitizing our teens to the dangers of teen driving.
Contrast this approach with teens listening to searing, personal testimony from parents and siblings of teen drivers who have lost their lives. Here in Connecticut, this is the approach taken by !MPACT, or Mourning Parents Act, www.mourningparentsact.org. There are similar organizations across the country. !MPACT was founded by mothers who lost their teens in accidents. Today, Sherry Chapman and Janice Palmer, frequently joined by Dave Roy, Donna Jenner, and others, heroically tell hundreds of high school students about the day their teens left the house, and how they learned that their kids had been in a serious accident, and then that they were dead. And then the details of the accident and injuries. And then their agonizing descent into shock, disbelief, and horror, as they realized that there would be no more birthdays, holidays, graduations, and weddings. Go to the !MPACT website for more.
I have attended several !MPACT presentations, and spoken at one. My daughter spoke at one, about losing her brother. When these mothers, fathers, and siblings speak, you can hear a pin drop in the auditorium. These teens are not texting or whispering. They are fully engaged in both the message being delivered and what it would sound like if their own mother, father, sister or brother were speaking. Tears flow, and invariably students send messages to the presenters about how their remarks have led to changes in their habits as drivers and passengers. Sometimes, these teens confess in their messages to near crashes that almost cost them their lives.
As with many of my observations and advice to parents on this blog, this is not rocket science, and if I am belaboring the obvious, I apologize. But in summary: (1) getting teens to internalize the dangers of driving is critical; (2) too often, we try to convey lessons about safe driving with photos and videos that feature blood and twisted metal; and (3) we would do better to focus more on the human consequences of bad driving decisions, on the multi-dimensional and incalculable suffering that follows serious injury or death of a teen driver. Ask your teen’s school to invite !MPACT or an organization like it, or a speaker who can deliver a compelling personal story, to come and speak about the risks of teen driving. Or introduce your teen to someone in your community who is willing to be a real-life example. There are, unfortunately, quite a few of us.