The safety of new drivers on the road is a perennial concern for parents. And it’s commonplace for adults in general to express misgivings about the skills and aptitude of young drivers. But what are the actual risks? And what can you do to help?
Let’s look at some facts about traffic accidents and teenagers:
· The number of young drivers involved in fatal crashes decreased by almost 50% between 2005 and 2014.
· Traffic collisions remain the number one cause of death for people between the ages of 16 and 21.
· In 2014, 9% of all drivers involved in fatal crashes were between the ages of 15 and 20 even though they represent only 5.5% of all drivers.
· Approximately half of all teens will be involved in a car crash before graduating high school.
First, it’s important to recognize that deaths due to teenage driving have come down—way down. This is despite the advent of smart phones, despite there being more teenage drivers on the road.
This is good news, and it’s a trend that needs to continue. But the concerns we have about the safety of teenagers (and ourselves around those teenagers) is still warranted. One reason that traffic collisions are a leading cause of death is that healthy young people don’t have as many threats from other leading causes, such as cancers or heart disease. But there are other factors that affect teenagers’ driving safety and put them at greater risk: driving inexperience and a tendency toward risk-taking behaviors.
The interesting thing to note, and the difficult thing for adults to keep in mind, is that neither of these two factors is the fault of teenagers. Their lack of experience has everything to do with their youth and the only way they can gain more experience is to spend more time behind the wheel. And risk-taking behaviors is part of brain chemistry. The region of the brain which controls inhibition doesn’t fully develop until our mid-twenties. So, while we can and should explain the risks of driving to teenagers, we can’t completely control for biology. And if we can’t control for internal states, then we must try to control for external ones.
How do we do this? One way is to try to create a more generally safe driving environment. We must afford teenagers (and indeed everyone) extra space and courtesy. While you may be frustrated with the behavior of a young driver, understand that this may be his first time dealing with this type of traffic situation. Being angry or aggressive with a teen isn’t likely to correct the behavior. In fact, it’s more likely that it will intensify the situation and put everyone, including yourself, at risk.
Here’s a thought experiment: imagine that you see a car with a “Student Driver” sign on the back. It’s going slower than normal in the right lane, and when it approaches the red light, doesn’t take the option to turn right on red despite having a clear window to do so. What do you do? Do you get angry, start yelling and honking? Not likely. Most of us recognize that students must work within the confines of their skills and comfort levels. Now, imagine instead that you pull up behind a car driven by teenager who has only recently received his learner’s permit. Now how do you respond? If you’re like a lot of people, you may find yourself annoyed and inclined toward being upset. But what is different about this situation? Young drivers are still student drivers, even without the sign. That young driver may have been a student driver a matter of months or weeks ago and is still getting used to the thousands of driving situations to which experienced drivers have adapted.
If you are the parent or guardian of a teen learning to drive, it’s critical that you let teenagers develop their skills. Give them every opportunity to drive when you are in the car with them. Slowly introduce them to new and increasingly more difficult driving situations. We’re not suggesting that you put teenagers in situations they are not yet ready to handle, of course. But as they gain experience, they need to grow more used to difficult driving situations. This includes heavy traffic and inclement weather. You may be inclined to take the keys away when it’s snowing, but would you rather your teen’s first time driving in the snow be with a calm adult in the car who can offer advice and instruction, or when he is alone or possibly with loud and excitable friends?
Another way we can help is to model the kind of behavior we want from teens. How do you behave behind the wheel? While you may have more experience and therefore believe you can handle things differently, remember that young people learn by watching. Do you tell your kids about the dangers of distracted driving but send text messages yourself? Do you show them that the proper way to handle stressful situations is to lay on the horn, yell at other drivers, or otherwise express the symptoms of road rage? Do you listen to loud music in the car, eat, or do your makeup? Even young children will learn the “proper” way to behave behind the wheel from watching you.
If you don’t have kids, these rules still apply. Our collective behavior “initiates” new drivers into the culture of the road. If we are aggressive, distracted, and impatient, how else could we expect teenagers to act? Let’s start by setting an example and taking responsibility for making the road a safer and calmer place for everyone.