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Today, I begin a multi-part series drawn from observations about driving in Tom Vanderbilt’s terrific 2009 book, Traffic. This book is full of insights. It points out many aspects of traffic safety that are just below the surface of our consciousness as drivers, things we know intuitively but rarely think about, things which when brought to our attention make us wonder why we don’t pay more attention. I will highlight Vanderbilt’s observations that are especially important to those who supervise teen drivers.
Example Number One: Vanderbilt’s observation (page 183) that the most dangerous place on any road is a sharp curve at the end of a long straightaway. This makes perfect sense: on a long, straight, uncongested stretch of road, drivers pick up speed, often going above the speed limit, and are then confronted with a sudden need to slow down to take a curve left or right. Drivers often proceed into the curve at a faster speed than the road designers intended, and the physical consequence is that the force on the wheels becomes uneven, and a skid and a spinout are often the result.
This is how my son died. On Interstate 84 East, he was on the two mile straightaway directly east of the Town of Southington, crossed into Plainville, and then was confronted with the sharp turn to the right where the speed limit suddenly goes from 65 to 50. He want too far straight into the curve, overcorrected, went into a spin and hit the end of a guard rail. Please refer back to my March 17, 2011 post on “The Physics of Skidding.”
The lesson in this for parents, guardians, and those who supervise teen drivers is to think carefully, with your teen, about the route that they will be driving every time they get behind the wheel. In my April 20, 2011 post entitled “Air Traffic Control” I encourage parents to act like an air traffic controller by establishing, each time a teen drives, a flight plan — route, timetable, passengers, weather conditions, return time, check in procedures, etc. So let us focus on the route. First, new drivers should not be allowed to drive a route that you, as a supervising adult, are not familiar with. Second, and most importantly, you should review the agreed upon route in your mind and out loud with your teen, and consider whether there are locations on that route that are potentially unsafe, such as a curve at the end of a straightaway, as Vanderbilt describes; a left lane merge onto a busy highway; a stretch of three or four lane highway where drivers are constantly changing lanes to get to exits; places with poor visibility; roundabouts with multiple entry points, etc. You should either instruct your teen to take a route that avoids these more dangerous places, or at very least make sure to warn your teen what he or she will face in that location. I am sure that one part of my son’s crash was that he was one a road that he had never driven before, and so he was mostly likely surprised by the curve to the right and the sudden decrease in the speed limit.
Another lesson here is the danger of joyriding. You can’t control your teen’s route or warn of a dangerous place if you don’t know where they are going.
Finally, I note that there are now technological ways, GPS systems, for parents to actually track where their teens are driving, so if you map out with your teen an exact route to be taken, or point out an especially dangerous place that should be avoided, there are tracking systems that allow parents to monitor compliance.