Every few days I get an email from the Safe Roads Coalition in Washington, D.C., the organization that, among other things, is promoting the STANDUP Act (a national minimum standard for teen driving laws) in Congress. The email usually includes links to news articles from across the country about fatal car crashes involving teen drivers. One of the sad realities is that most of the headlines and articles describe one or more passengers being injured or killed. Accidents like my son’s, where only the driver was killed, are more the exception.
As you know, driving is the leading cause of death of people under 20 in the United States. This raises the question: at what age do kids begin to be at risk as passengers? National statistics provide the answer: Age 12. Junior high school. Another question is: during what time of day are teen passengers most at risk? Here too the answer is clear from the data: the hours directly after school, when kids are most likely to pile into cars with freedom and fun most on their minds.
Advice about passengers is best broken into six categories: risks; myths; delusions; and advice for parents of drivers, parents of passengers, and schools and youth organizations.
1. Risks: Readers of this blog know my mantra: There is no such thing as a safe teen driver. Teens’ brains are not sufficiently developed to assess and respond to risk and danger; it takes years of experience to be a safe driver; and teens are learning to handle a vehicle and navigate at the same time, a very tough challenge. Driver’s Ed teaches a teen how to handle a car but does not produce a safe driver, because Driver’s Ed cannot overcome the factors just noted. So, parents who conclude that it is safe for their child to ride with a teen driver because that driver is a sensible kid who has taken Driver’s Ed are fooling themselves. Just like “the best car for a teen is no car,” the best advice about riding with a teen driver is DON’T.
But since this is likely to happen, the second level of analysis is to identify the factors that increase the so-called baseline dangers of teen driving: recreational driving (driving with out a destination, a prescribed route, a timetable, and a consequence for arriving late); distracted driving (texting, using an electronic device, doing anything other than eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, mind on the situation); impaired driving (drugs or alcohol); driving at night, in bad weather, or while fatigued; driving in an unfamiliar place; and driving without a seat belt. At least avoid these higher-risk situations.
2. Myths. An adult driver who is specifically supervising the safe vehicle operation of a teen driver, and is sitting in the front passenger seat, can be regarded as a “second pair of eyes.” However, to think that having another teen, an inexperienced driver, or anyone in the back seat improves safety by being an additional pair of eyes is nothing more than a dangerous myth.
3. Delusions. Some parents justify allowing teen drivers to have illegal passengers because it saves on gas. I wonder how many times a teen passenger actually pays for a share of gas, but in any event, this excuse, compared to the documented dangers of teen drivers having passengers, is delusional. The same is true of the explanation that a teen driver needs passengers to get experience with driving with passengers. Teens should learn to become safe drivers; then they can move on to passengers.
4. For parents of teen drivers. Passengers are a topic for which it is simple to set down clear rules: No passengers that are illegal under state law. No passengers without the express permission of the parent/supervising adult of the teen driver and the passenger. No exceptions, and this should be clear in the Teen Driving Contract that you and your teen negotiate and sign.
5. For parents of passengers: If your child must ride with a teen: Don’t allow your child to get in a car with a teen driver who is not known to you as a responsible, mature person, an experienced driver (at least one year with a full license, no suspensions or accidents), and able to drive your child legally. Purposeful driving only — no joyrides. Communicate with the driver’s parent or supervising adult so everyone is aware of the plan. Explain to you child clearly to not tolerate any form of distraction or impairment by the teen driver. Rehearse a strategy for how your child will get out on the car if the situation becomes unsafe (the most popular is “I feel like I am going to throw up”). Have a code word that your child can text or say in a cell phone call if he or she is in danger. Make it clear that the decision to get out of the car of a distracted, impaired, or unsafe driver, even in the middle of nowhere, can be the difference between life and death.
6. For schools and youth organizations. Every school or organization that relies in any way on teens transporting other teens should make sure that all permission forms have clear statement of that state’s law regarding passengers; carefully police which teens will carry passengers; and post on a website and a bulletin board a list of the teen drivers who have had their license long enough to legally carry passengers. That list should not include anyone who has had a license suspension or accident.
I have noted in an earlier post that the best way to get a teen’s attention is not through photos of car crashes or body parts, but from hearing about the human consequences of bad decisions by teen drivers. Hearing from a parent about the loss of a child is devastating enough, but see if you get your child to listen to a teen driver who killed someone else, maybe a girlfriend or boyfriend, and now has to live with the aftermath.