This was you once

John Latta
Executive Editor
[email protected]

I’m guessing you drive in a state of practiced readiness. You don’t drive on mental cruise control, but your reactions, your monitoring of the road and peripheral situations, and your understanding of what your vehicle will and won’t do in a given circumstance are well honed and practiced capabilities.

If you have, or have had, teenagers, you know they don’t drive the way you drive. You know how much they don’t know. When my teenager pulls out of the driveway, I live scared until he gets home. Every single time. Why? He’s a terrific young man, but he’s also a teenage driver, and national statistics tell us this about teen drivers:

  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers.
  • 16-year-olds have higher crash rates than drivers of any other age.
  • 16-year-olds are three times more likely to die in a motor vehicle crash than the average driver.
  • 3,490 drivers age 15-20 died in car crashes in 2006, up slightly from 2005.
  • Drivers age 15-20 accounted for 12.9 percent of all the drivers involved in fatal crashes and 16 percent of all the drivers involved in police-reported crashes in 2006.

You see why I’m scared. My son is a good driver most of the time, but look at these statistics, found in a 2005 survey of 1,000 people ages 15 and 17, conducted by the Allstate Foundation:

  • More than half (56 percent) of young drivers use cell phones while driving.
  • 69 percent said that they speed to keep up with traffic.
  • 64 percent said they speed to go through a yellow light.
  • 47 percent said that passengers sometimes distract them.
  • Nearly half said they believed that most crashes involving teens result from drunk driving.

Now a just-completed six-year study reveals the three biggest risk factors contributing to car crash deaths for passengers aged 8 to 17: Riding unbuckled with new teen drivers on high-speed roads.

Lives will be saved because of the study. Don’t let your teen ride with a teen driver who has less than a year’s experience driving. Insist on seat belts. And practice ways teens can resist peer pressure to ride with other teens, said Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the new study’s lead author.

The data in this new study that stood out to me was the role high-speed roads play in teen driving deaths. High-speed roads – that means interstates.

You are out there with them, and you are the best drivers on the road. So I wanted to ask you to take a little extra caution around teenagers. Yes, yes, I know they sometimes drive like maniacs and often with an attitude problem to test a saint. I’m betting they can be pretty hard to like as they maneuver around you, and they can be a genuine risk to your own safety much more often than almost any other group of drivers.

But teenagers constantly remind us, usually unintentionally, they are not all grown up yet and are going to continue to do crazily unreasonable things, either deliberately or because they simply don’t think all the time behind the wheel.

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The other day I was surprised to find out that teenagers, especially boys, really like truckers. My son and his group are not anywhere near a random sample of American teenagers, but they respect you. Just by by learning to drive they somehow have figured out that you are very, very good at driving. It doesn’t hurt that you drive cool rigs either.

Last night, my son drove off, and I was standing at the front door, and I got that nasty worried feeling the moment he turned the corner and rolled out of sight. I thought at that instant, “I hope that if he does something thoughtless, he’s surrounded by experienced, safe drivers who recognize that this is teen foolishness and react accordingly.” Truckers fit that description best of all. So spread the word for me if you know a driver who thinks those kids are grown-ups.