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Today marks four years since Reid’s accident. I miss my son more than I can ever explain, and I still have days when I disbelieve that 12/2/06 really happened. But I can also report that 15 months of blogging, unexpectedly, has transformed Reid into a more regular presence in my life, a cyber companion if you will. In a way, he has become an editor of these posts. The feeling is at times so strong that I expect him to demand a raise.
In my presentations I often say that my message to parents is not so much that I made an obvious mistake in supervising Reid’s driving, but more that I didn’t, yet my son still died. During 2006, I considered myself an informed, plugged-in, hands-on parent who was doing what I saw most other parents doing: providing lots of on-the-road training, keeping a close eye on everything, coming down swiftly on misbehavior, but slowly letting out the tether. Then, a year after his accident, I served on the statewide Task Force that overhauled Connecticut’s teen driver laws and learned that I had been, in fact, not well-informed about the dangers of teen driving in 2006, and that in this respect I was not much different from many other parents.
I have stopped beating myself up over this revelation. I have come to realize that the type of parenting that I advocate on this blog is a real challenge, because of factors that blind us to the risks involved when our teens get behind the wheel. I suppose that I now view this blog as Reid and I exposing dangers that lie just below the surface of teen driving.
One reality we confront is that for parents, the day a teen gets a license is one of achievement, independence, relief, and pride. Achievement because a child has passed a very adult test. Independence because she can now drive herself. Relief because we don’t have to. Pride because our hearts and heads swell as watching our kids literally in the driver’s seat. This rite of passage and the convenience it brings can lure any parent into forgetting about crash and fatality rates.
Much of our culture reinforces this pride. Tossing car keys to a teen can have the feel of bestowing part of the American dream and passing the torch from one generation to another. Meanwhile, we are desensitized to speeding and accidents. Companies sell cars by showcasing acceleration and high-risk maneuvers. We pay to go to the movies to watch smashing cars. As a nation, we agonize over several thousand troops dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we accept more than 200,000 deaths on our highways during the same time period as part of the price of our mobile society. Parenting our teen drivers, in a sense, requires us to shield ourselves from the media and the news.
Even the strictest of our teen driving laws can subtly abet bad supervision by parents. Parents assume that if the state’s minimum driving age is 16, the state must have determined that everyone achieving that age, if taught to operate a motor vehicle, will be a safe driver. We forget, for example, that laws that allow teenagers to drive ignore the current science showing that the human brain does not fully appreciate risk and danger until a person reaches 22 to 25 years old.
Equally misleading to parents is most of the literature available: articles, books and websites that work from the assumption that it is inevitable that teens will drive, and therefore mention the dangers but focus most on teaching teens to handle a car safely. These resources leapfrog over the critical decision, which can only be made day-by-day, of whether, in the first place, a particular teen should get behind the wheel of a particular car.
The challenge confronting parents of teen drivers is to become informed in spite of these forces, to think of teen driving not as an assumption but as a strictly supervised, one-day-at-a-time choice. Parents have the power right now to reduce teen driving crash rates and fatalities. It need not be inevitable that an average of eleven teens die each day.
Which leads me back to Reid’s role in this blog. Shortly after receiving NHTSA’s national Public Service Award in April 2010, I said this to a group of friends in an email: ” I wish that all of you who have walked with me in some way since Reid’s accident could have been with Ellen, Martha, and me in Philadelphia. I suppose that what motivates parents like me to become advocates for safety is the thought that our child did not die in vain. When the masthead of my blog, with Reid’s photo, was displayed on two big screens in front of a national audience of almost 2,000 traffic safety professionals, I indulged the thought that Reid was still making a difference.”
That thought now lies at the heart of everything I post on this blog. As with many efforts to improve safety, success is accidents that don’t happen, so faith that we are doing the right thing and hope that people are reading the message, taking it to heart, and passing it on to others, keeps us going.
I used to go to the Fairview Cemetery, where Reid is buried, almost every other day. It was what felt right to me at the time. But since I started this blog, I have felt less drawn to his gravesite and more attracted to my — our – keyboard, a place where he and I can strategize about the formidable challenge of saving teen drivers and sparing their families. Through this blog, the IMPACT billboard that includes Reid’s photo (http://mourningparentsact.org/photoalbum.html), and readers forwarding this blog to others, Reid’s name and photo are becoming nationwide symbols for the cause of safe teen driving. Reid has joined me as an advocate. Four years after he weaved out of his lane, overcorrected as inexperienced drivers sometimes do, and then went into the spin that caused the blow that killed him, he now collaborates, helping me explain why there is no such thing as a safe teen driver and all of the cautions for parents that flow from this basic message. In a very real sense, I am the scribe but Reid is the face and soul of the message.
Thanks for listening and reading. Don’t sacrifice safety for convenience. Don’t be misled by the literature. Don’t confuse legal with safe. Don’t force a teen who is not ready. Keep in mind the difference between purposeful driving and joyriding. Do everything you can to avoid what happened to our family. Sign a contract with your teen, and look out for other people’s teens. Be safe.
Reid and Tim