a blog for parents of teen drivers

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Archive for March, 2010

This blog’s focus is safer teen driving, but let me digress to a larger issue about safe driving in general.


I research topics for posts on this blog primarily by reading everything remotely relevant that I can find.  Most recently, I have followed closely the “Driven to Distraction” series in The New York Times, written mostly by reporter Matt Richtel; the book Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt (excellent); and websites of such organizations as the Safe Roads Coalition,  AAA Foundation,  Center for Disease Control, and NHTSA.  In addition to timely information, these sources give me hope that teen driver fatalities and crashes will continue to decline as they have in recent years, and that parents across the country will become ever more aware of the dangers of teen driving and increasingly informed and proactive as they oversee their newly-licensed drivers.


These sources also discuss the burgeoning array of safe driving technologies, such as front end sensors that stop a car and prevent a crash even when the driver doesn’t brake.  From my reading it is clear that, across the nation, thousands of people are working hard every day to educate drivers, inform parents, and improve automobile safety in general and teen driver safety in particular.


Which is why it drives me crazy (pun neither intended nor avoidable) to read about the forces that are making driving more dangerous.


technologyMatt Richtel’s recent columns have spotlighted the trend, now in progress, of auto manufacturers adding more distracting electronics to cars, mainly multi-purpose, interactive computer screens that offer not only telecommunications, navigation, and sound systems but also consumer electronics and video entertainment.  (Mr. Richtel, by the way, deserves not only the Pulitzer Prize but the Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless efforts and penetrating analyses of these trends).  The functions, sophistication, and availability of these systems are limited only by the imaginations and collaborations of electronics and auto industry engineers and consumer preferences and budgets, but there does not appear to be any doubt that:  dashboards will be the location; big screens will be the basic installation; distracting, interactive functions will be the norm; and entirely preventable crashes and fatalities will be the result.


I am not an electronics expert, and predicting the exact shape of these imminent amenities is not my focus.  The point is that while research is pouring in about the dangers of distracted driving, electronics and auto manufacturing companies are working as quickly as they can to introduce new features into cars that, we can predict with certainty, will counteract the efforts of the public safety community.


It appears from what I have read that the universal defense from the business community is that they are only responding to consumer demand, and as is their mantra, safety “is a matter of individual responsibility.”  In other words, if your car comes with a dashboard-mounted screen that allows you, while driving on an Interstate, to launch a browser, search for the nearest restaurant, and display reviews of its food and service, then it is simply up to you as a driver to do so responsibility and safely.


The fallacy of this argument, of course, is that driving, more than any other activity in our society, implicates the safety of others.  As Tom Vanderbilt, in his book Traffic, so aptly observes, in no other places do so many people, such a diverse population, mingle so freely – and dangerously – as on highways and public streets.  In no other activity does one person randomly threaten more people than when a driver takes his eyes off the road to interact with a video screen or use a keyboard.


Thus, we have ongoing today, simultaneously, not only nationwide efforts to improve safety, but also to introduce into cars new technologies that will cause death and serious injury in exactly the ways that so many are trying to prevent.  This marching in opposite directions is simply madness.

posted by Tim | read users’ comments(0)

Businesses, governments, and schools have long understood that one way to boost achievement and promote compliance is to shine a spotlight, to publicize lists of who qualifies for a status, who has followed the rules or who has not.  Businesses post the names of employees with perfect attendance records.  Governments publish the roll of who is behind on property tax payments.  Schools print their honor rolls in local newspapers.  Public recognition is an incentive to do the right thing, while public reckoning can be a powerful deterrent.


Back in the good old days – the 1990′s and before – such publicity primarily involved newspapers and bulletin boards, but in recent years, of course, it has migrated to websites.  Perhaps the most prominent and earliest example of government use of a website as a deterrent has been registries, publicly available lists, of where convicted sex offenders live.


websiteSo, the Web it now is, and I believe it is now safe to assume that every high school in the U.S. has at least a modest website.  Offering one bit of confirmation of this phenomenon, USA Today reported last week that schools districts around the country are considering paid advertising on their websites as a way to help meet their budget deficits.  The article
(March 18, 2010, p. 3A) quotes administrators as targeting businesses whose products promote education or safety.


Why then can’t we use school websites to help promote safer teen driving?


Many schools already do, in the sense of announcing safe driving events such as a guest speaker, the schedule for driver education classes, or a school-wide safe teen driving poster contest.  My suggestion here, however, envisions a step beyond these merely informational messages:  using the website to shape behavior by shining a spotlight on legal drivers, good drivers, and maybe even bad drivers.


Consider these potential additions to high school websites, presented here in ascending order of boldness and (I agree) potential controversy:


  • a list of each student who has had his or her license long enough to carry passengers legally (many Graduated Driver Laws now specify a period of no passengers for newly-licensed drivers, followed by several months of “immediate family only,” and then unrestricted passengers);


  • a list of each student who is now permitted to carry passengers and, since getting a license, has not been convicted of a moving violation or other serious misconduct;


  • a list, regardless of how long since licensing, of every student who has been convicted of a moving violation or other misconduct (which, of course, includes any type of impaired driving); or


  • some combination of these lists.


I hope that the potential benefits of these website lists are obvious.  First and foremost, a critical piece of information for parents of students at every school where kids are allowed to have cars – which in many suburban high schools is the vast majority of juniors and seniors – is who is legally permitted to carry passengers.  In my previous blog post, “I Give My Child Permission To Drive With . . .,” I spotlighted the issues for schools and parents that are embedded in the forms by which parents allow their kids to be driven to or from school, or to or from school events, by other students.  Shouldn’t these forms and decisions be accompanied by confirmation about which students are legal chauffeurs, and which have not been convicted of a violation?  And doesn’t this information cry out for a centralized, electronically-accessible list?


What about the administrative burden of collecting and maintaining this list?  Well, yes, it will probably take someone on staff a few hours to compile the initial list and a few minutes now and then to update it, but I doubt that the time required will be significant, and in any event, the safety benefits and greater peace-of-mind should make it worthwhile.  Moreover, I highly suspect that, at least for options 1 and 2 above (allowed to carry passengers, or allowed plus no violation) can run on a self-reporting basis.  Students and maybe even parents will consider adding their names to those lists a type of mini-graduation, an announcement that Teen A has climbed another step toward adulthood.  Thus, all that may be needed is for the school to establish the list and explain how to add a name and the date on which the student “became legal.”  There could be some work involved if a student already on the list is convicted of a violation and should have his/her name removed, but presumably this would be a relatively small number.


I recognize that the third option, posting the names of every student convicted of driving misconduct, will be more controversial, especially among parents, and involves a problem of how schools will obtain the information.  In some states, such a list might require a change to the teen driver laws.  But I ask this question:  Many schools now impose penalties such as revoking privileges or stripping students of leadership positions for drug or alcohol violations or other egregious behavior.  Why not serious driving misconduct?  Speeding?  Texting while behind the wheel?  Drag racing?  Is it more important to regard a student’s driving record as a matter of personal privacy than to alert fellow students and parents to which teen drivers have not yet gotten the message that driving is the leading cause of death of teenagers in the U.S.?


Dedicating a small corner of a school website to a list of drivers who can carry passengers, and/or so-far have been safe or unsafe drivers is not a cure-all.  In particular, simply because Student A has now had a full license long enough to carry passengers and has managed this initial period without a violation does not, by any measure, ensure that we now have a reliably safe or experienced driver, as other posts on this blog explain in detail.  Yet, the primary goal of this blog is to help parents make better decisions about when their teens should get behind the wheel or should get into a car when a teen will be behind the wheel.  In this regard, high school websites offer a low-hanging fruit, a relatively simple way to provide helpful, timely information to parents that will help them make these better decisions.

posted by Tim | read users’ comments(0)

Every summer, most high schools in the U.S. send forms to parents and guardians that ask for permission for various activities at school.  The forms usually include something like this:


_____        _____        I give permission for my child to drive to

  Yes            No           and from school.


_____        _____        I give permission for my child to ride to

  Yes            No           school events with other students as drivers.


_____        _____        I give permission for my child to drive

  Yes            No           other students to school events.


This is usually the total extent of the forms, though sometimes they also ask if the student is authorized to drive a sibling to school, and sometimes they ask the parent / guardian to verify that the car the child will drive is insured.


These forms are a multi-part invitation to trouble.  Why?


  • Statistics repeatedly show that the most dangerous hours for teen drivers are the two hours directly after school lets out;


  • These “Yes / No” forms, if checked yes, allow your child, with the school’s blessing, to ride as a passenger with a driver unknown to you, and with other students in the car;


  • These forms rarely make any reference to the state’s teen driving law, such as passenger restrictions;


  • These forms often give the impression that school events are an exception to teen driver laws; and


  • These forms not only encourage but authorize a practice that we know is dangerous, teens driving with passengers.


permission slipWhy do schools use these forms?  To save money on transportation and gas, no doubt.  Why do parents agree?  Well, the forms come from the school, so someone must have decided that students driving other students is safe, right?


Or perhaps, as I suspect, these are the same forms that have been in use for decades, and no one has thought to change them to reflect better the dangers of teen driving in general and of passengers and after school hours in particular.


In fairness, there is one part of the driving authorized by these forms that actually carries a lower risk:  Elsewhere on this blog, I have discussed the difference between “purposeful” and “recreational” driving.  When a teen driver has a destination, a route, a timetable, and a consequence for not arriving safely and on schedule, crash risks are lower.  Most of the types of driving authorized by these forms are, I suppose, purposeful.  But this is the only counterweight to an otherwise dangerous practice of schools asking parents and guardians for blanket permission for teens to drive with other teens as passengers.


What should schools and parents do?


  1. Not allow high school students to drive other students to school events, period.  If transportation is needed, buses should be used or parents / guardians should be the drivers.
  2. Barring this complete prohibition, schools can:
    • remind parents on the forms themselves that the state’s passenger rules are (for example, “Our state prohibits teen drivers from carrying non-family passengers for one year after licensing”);
    • identify on the school’s website those students who are permitted by state law to carry passengers;
    • on a case-by-case, event-to-event basis, remind students and parents when their transportation to and from a school event will involve a teen driver;
    • bar any teen who receives a ticket or citation from driving other students (which, of course, requires the teen or parents to notify the school); and
    • have each teen driver sign a school version of a teen driver contract, committing to safe practices such as no electronic devices and a willingness to ask for help if fatigue sets in (which can happen particularly after athletic events).
  3. Remind every student who will be a passenger of a student driver of the importance of being a good passenger:  no distractions, use safety belts, and if your driver engages in unsafe driving, get out of the car.


Any parent, guardian, or school official who dismisses these ideas as too much work is invited to read the other parts of this blog.

posted by Tim | read users’ comments(1)