a blog for parents of teen drivers

You are currently browsing the FROM REID'S DAD weblog archives for August, 2010.



August 2010
« Jul   Sep »

Archive for August, 2010

This topic started out with what seemed like a simple question from my friend Brandon Dufour, one of Connecticut’s most astute driving instructors and the owner of the All-Star Driving School.  A parent of one of his teen driver students insisted that even though our state bans teen drivers from using any “mobile electronic device,” even hands-free, a Global Positioning System (aka “GPS”) is exempt from this ban.  Brandon asked for help in responding to this parent.


technologyThis seemingly straightforward question turned out to be a rather complex one, and one that led me down several research paths during the past few weeks.  GPS’s and mobile electronic devices will be the subject of several upcoming blog posts.


I guess I should have figured out that Brandon’s question was not easy from the fact that my first two reactions — perhaps yours also — were exactly opposite.  On the one hand, a GPS helps us with directions, and so it is a safety aid.  What could be wrong with that?  On the other hand,  a GPS is an electronic device with a screen and a keyboard, and thus exactly the kind of distraction from driving that causes accidents.  These can’t both be correct, I thought.


I have not researched all 50 states, but let me start with my home state and then throw in a national reference.  Here in Connecticut, our teen driver law states that 16 and 17 year old drivers may not use any “mobile electronic device” while driving.  This means ”any hand-held or other portable electronic equipment,” which includes any texting device, pager, personal digital assistant, laptop computer, or video game.  However, the definition specifically excludes “audio equipment” and any equipment “installed for the purpose of providing navigation,” emergency assistance, or video entertainment to passengers in the rear seats. [Digression: why it makes a difference that a GPS is installed vs. plugged into the car's cigarette lighter is beyond me - future blog post.]


This law clearly allows any driver, including any teen, to use a GPS while driving because it “provides navigation,” right?  Not so fast (no pun intended).  Another part of Connecticut’s motor vehicle law says that “No person shall engage in any activity not related to the actual operation of the motor vehicle that interferes with the safe operating of the vehicle.”  So, if a teen driver takes her eye off the road to type in an address on GPS, is she violating the law?


This contradiction also appears in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA)  published national model for state law texting-while-driving prohibitions,   NHTSA’s model makes it illegal to “manually type or enter multiple letters, numbers, symbols or other text” into a wireless device, but it exempts “receiving messages related to the operation or navigation of a motor vehicle,”  which would seem to allow use of a GPS.


It would appear, then, that at least Connecticut’s law and NHTSA’s national model do not consider a GPS to be the type of electronic device that teen drivers should be prohibited from using.  But let us as parents and instructors of teen drivers consider whether using a GPS is a good idea, legal or not.


GPS’s are amazing devices that provide directions to our destination and pinpoint the location of our vehicle. The safety advantage can be substantial to drivers, emergency responders, and law enforcement. Yet, consider these drawbacks:

  • Unless your GPS is voice activated (and some are, but in my understanding, very few at this time), using one requires typing in an address, which is no different from, and every bit as dangerous as, texting if it occurs while the car is in motion.
  • A GPS has a screen, which is unquestionably a distraction from the road ahead.
  • GPS’s are not infallible, of course, and perhaps the only thing more dangerous than a teen driver is a confused or lost teen driver.
  • GPS voice commands, in a subtle way, direct us where and when to turn, but may give the impression that it is safe to turn, which may or may not be the case.  In other words, I worry that for a teen driver, a voice command from a GPS may be taken (as illogical as it may sound) as the GPS’s evaluation that the turn can be made safely, as if the GPS has also evaluated traffic surrounding the vehicle.
  • The simple fact is that teen drivers are still learning to drive, and a GPS is one more thing to think about.

All of above considered, here are several recommendations for parents considering whether their teen driver should use a GPS:

  1. In general, for the reasons listed above,  your teen should avoid using a GPS, if possible, even if it is technically legal.
  2. Don’t let a GPS lull you or your teen into skipping one of the most important steps that should precede every time a teen driver gets behind the wheel – planning the intended route.  Put another way, do not under any circumstances think that using a GPS is a reason to allow your teen to jump into a car and drive to an unfamiliar place without planning, because the GPS voice will show the way.
  3. If your teen intends to use a GPS, make its use a part of the teen’s supervised training.  Don’t start a teen on a GPS for the first time when he or she begins to drive solo.
  4. Emphasize to your teen that, if a GPS will/must be used, typing an address must be done before the car is in motion, and if the address needs to be revised, the teen should pull off the road into a safe place.

In an earlier post on this blog, I lamented the intrusion of video screens into the dashboard of cars.  The auto and electronics industries, while issuing warnings about the responsibility of individual drivers to keep their eyes on the road, are working together to increase exactly the type of distractions that are costing thousands of lives each year.  In my opinion, we should not even be debating whether teen drivers should use a GPS. I have put this post together only after concluding, somewhat to my surprise, that our teen driver laws don’t ban GPS’s as mobile electronic devices, and our anti-texting laws (for everyone else) don’t ban them, on the basis that they assist navigation. But parents, just because a GPS is legal doesn’t mean that it does not increase the already considerable danger of teen driving.


As always, I would welcome your comments.

posted by Tim | read users’ comments(1)

Juvenile Court? – Part 2

August 12, 2010

gavelI have received several off-line comments about my last post on whether teen driver cases should be handled in juvenile court, where they are shielded from public view.  Most have opposed my position, saying that the teen driver has suffered enough; the criminal charge is negligent homicide, that is, an innocent mistake by a new teen driver; and the court system should decide where the case is handled, based on the circumstances of the case.  One thoughtful letter, published in the Hartford Courant as a response to mine, came from the director of a juvenile justice organization, who said in part:  “The reason we have separate juvenile and adult justice systems is that we know kids are different. They are still developing and much more amenable to rehabilitation.” 


To further this discussion, a few points:

  1. We are talking here only about 16 and 17 year olds, who are the only drivers eligible to have their cases sent to juvenile court.  My comment has nothing to do with kids younger than 16 or drivers older than 18.
  2. It seems to me that, as a society, it is contradictory for us to say that 16 and 17 years olds are allowed to operate vehicles on public highways, where they are unquestionably a threat to public safety, but when they are charged with serious misconduct or consequences, they should be treated as juveniles.  This is where I (and, I think, the statewide Task Force on which I served in 2008) part company with the statement in the letter quoted above, that ”kids are different … and still developing.”  When it comes to driving, we cannot base our teen driver or juvenile justice laws on the thought that teen drivers should be treated differently because they are inexperienced and don’t know any better.  In addition, I am not sure that the letter’s reference to kids being “more amenable to rehabilitation” has anything to do with driving; the court system is certainly not set up to help teens become better drivers.  Put another way, I don’t think that the many valid reasons for which we have juvenile courts apply to the operation of motor vehicle by a teenager. 
  3. There may be cases where public attention would actually prevent the administration of justice for a teen driver. The regular court system can deal with those exceptions, without our juvenile laws allowing such cases to be trasnsferred on a regular basis.
  4. I wrote the original comment to point out that the law involved asks a judge to balance the interests of the teenager with “the needs of the community,” and that there is, in fact, a powerful community interest – further education parents and teens about the dangers of teen driving — that needs to be factored into a judge’s consideration.

Let me go back to the beginning of my original comment.  The accident that led to the teen driver being charged is a tragedy for him, his family, and the victim’s family.  I wish them healing and an ability to move on, and have expressed this offline.   My priority here is educating parents and saving teen driver lives.  Handling cases of this type in a public setting will help this cause.


I hope this debate has been useful.

posted by Tim | read users’ comments(0)

In January 2010, a sixteen-year-old driver here in Connecticut was driving on Interstate 84 at 8:30 on a Saturday morning and collided with a school bus.  A student on the bus died, and the teen driver has been charged with negligent homicide.  Obviously, this situation is a terrible tragedy for the victim’s family as well as the driver and his family.


gavelLast week, a lawyer who represents the teen driver filed a motion in court to take advantage of a recent amendment to Connecticut’s juvenile court laws.  This law allows a case to be transferred from Superior Court, where all cases involving adults are handled, to juvenile court.  The penalties and the standards for both motor vehicle violations and more serious offenses such as negligent homicide are the same in juvenile court as in Superior Court;  the difference is that juvenile court proceedings are shielded from public view; in other words, court sessions and files are not public or open to the news media.  A case gets transferred to juvenile court only if a judge makes a determination that the defendant youth and the community would be “better served” by having the case heard in juvenile court.


A news article about the case and the transfer can be found at,0,6885678.story .


As noted elsewhere on this blog, I served on a statewide Task Force in 2008 that rewrote Connecticut’s teen driver laws and made a set of long-term recommendations.  One of the Task Force’s specific recommendations was that the juvenile courts and juvenile laws not undermine the teen driver laws by providing more lenient penalties or process.  I confess that I was unaware that our legislature had amended the juvenile court law earlier this year, or that its doing so might open up teen driver cases to take advantage.


Yesterday, I wrote a letter to the editor about the recent court motion, stating in part:


While we can understand the teen driver’s attorney strategic desire to shield his client, our new teen driving laws and the critical, statewide cause of safer teen driving will be better served if the issue of whether a sixteen-year-old driver triggered a fatal accident is presented publicly in court, using the same standards as apply to adults.


I truly understand the pain that the teen driver and his family are going through.  I’ve been there.  But I firmly believe two things:  First, driving is an adult activity, and it is simply a perversion of the nature of driving for anyone to suggest that teen driving violations should be handled in a juvenile court.  If teens want to drive, and if parents want to allow their teens to drive, then they need to accept from Day One that teen drivers should be held to adult standards, including in the court system.  Second, as hard as it may be for this particular teen driver’s family to understand, the best thing that can come out of this tragedy is for this matter to be heard in open court, so that teen drivers and their parents will get a better appreciation of the risks and potential consequences of teen driving.

posted by Tim | read users’ comments(0)