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Statistics about what times of day are the most hazardous for teen drivers have been very consistent for years: the hours after school lets out show a sharp spike from the 9AM to 3PM period; more crashes happen at night than during the day; and the three hour period when the most crashes happen is 9PM to Midnight. So let’s evaluate these statistics in light of the fact that only one state that I am aware of, North Carolina, sets its curfew for teen drives at 9PM, a few are at 10 PM, a few at 11PM, and many at midnight (and of course some states still have no curfew at all for young drivers).
In 2008, when Connecticut’s Safe Teen Driving Task Force was debating a change to its then-midnight curfew, we eventually narrowed our choices to 10PM or 11PM. Our state’s law then, and today, provided for exceptions from the curfew, for employment, school-related activities, religious observances, health related trips, volunteer public safety service (such a volunteer firefighters), and participants in “safe rides” programs. Still, our committee ended up needing to vote on the matter because we could not reach consensus. A high school principal was the biggest opponent of 10 PM, arguing that it was not realistic because high school activities regularly go past 10PM. We decided on 10PM by a single vote.
In a prior post on this blog and in my Model Teen Driving Agreement, I have provided advice on how to manage curfews, with my central points being (1) recognition of the dangers of night driving; (2) regardless of state law, parents and teens setting up curfews that are appropriate to the particular teen driver, the driving conditions that day, and the driving situation; (3) putting an early time into a teen driving agreement; and (4) having procedures for those times when a teen needs to use once of the curfew exceptions, such as when involved in a regular job or a temporary school obligation (a play, for example) that keeps the teen out past the state’s deadline. Also, when I speak at high school, I explain how teens can rely on the exceptions: “If your state curfew is 11PM, and it is 11:15, and you are stopped somewhere that is on a straight line between your school or job and your home, you’ll be ok. But if it is 2AM and you are three towns away from home, don’t try to tell the officer that you are invoking the curfew exception.”
That 2008 vote of the Connecticut Task Force, picking 11PM over 10PM, has continued to bother me, for this reason: faced with the undeniable dangers of night driving for teens, we should in every case set an early time – 10 PM is realistic I think, though 9 PM is even more defensible — as a default time, and then allow exceptions from there. The reason for this goes back to the point made on this blog about the difference between purposeful and recreational driving. If the curfew is 9PM or 10PM, this gets the “recreational” drivers and joyriders off the road, and the only ones who should be on the road after that are those who have a reason — one of the curfew exceptions – to be on the road. These teens are more likely to arrive home safely, because the folks at their school or job and their parents or guardians at home know when they are expected to leave, when they are expected home, and the route they should be taking. There are all risk-lowering circumstances.
So, parents, when it comes to curfews, whether under state law, in a teen driving agreement, or for a specific situation with your teen driver, err on the side of early. Better to let teens invoke the exemptions than have teens out on the road without consequence during what we know are the most dangerous hours of the day for them as drivers.