The approaching dread of teenage drivers

As I watched my girls aged 11, 8 and 6 roll around the house on the new scooters they received for Christmas, I found myself offering the usual “be careful! Watch where you’re going, not so fast!”

What they don’t know is that I can’t see them taking off merrily on their little scooters without flashing forward to the teen driving years when they’ll want to take off merrily in cars.

That’s because I recently read “Teenagers and Cars: A Deadly Mix” by Gerri Hirshey in the New York Times.

I may roll my eyes at helicopter parents today, but I plan on leading the squadron tomorrow when my kids face the very lethal combination of teens and autos. I know, I know, actually telling my teens they can’t drive after dark or with other teens, both of which dramatically increase their chance of crashing and the combination of which is especially deadly for young drivers, seems impossible.

But what struck me from the Hirshey piece wasn’t the litany of scary statistics involving teens and driving, or the real life, or rather the real death, accounts of recent teen driver fatalities she detailed.

It’s that Hirshey recounts that according to one recent poll, while barely one-third of parents think teen drivers are generally safe drivers, 88 percent — 88 percent — of parents believe their own teens are safe drivers. (Try to do that math.) And more than half of parents believe that if their child is involved in a crash it will be someone else’s fault.

Here’s a sample of what teens themselves say, according to 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 (a high-risk factor for accidents.)

69 percent said that they speed to keep up with traffic..

64 percent said they speed to go through a yellow light.

As Allstate puts it, no other hazard or behavior comes close to claiming as many teen lives as teen driving. Six thousand teens a year die in car accidents, with 300,000 more teens injured in accidents. What’s most sobering about the report? Allstate recounts that traditional “safe driving” courses and programs targeted at teens, which have proliferated in the last decade, have not led to safer teen driving. That’s probably because, Allstate says, we now know through science (what parents used to know in their hearts!) that the brains of teenagers are not physically wired to make good executive decisions. They are wired in many ways to take risks.

(And by the way, every parent knows that that’s particularly the case when it comes to boys.)

What does show promise in bringing down teen driving fatalities is later driving ages or phased-in driving restrictions which most states are implementing but which too few parents know about or enforce.

Anyway back to “not my kid.” As scary as that attitude may be when it comes to our children and driving, it’s really just a symptom of a much larger problem. It’s where we parents so let down our kids. We used to understand that our children came into the world full of naturally foolish tendencies and it was our job to love them and to civilize them and in the process protect them from themselves.

Now, 88 percent of parents believe their own kids are safe drivers, when the statistics and even the kids themselves so dramatically demonstrate otherwise.

It’s a fine thing for our love for our children to be a little near-sighted at times. But whether our kids are young and scootering or older and driving or anytime in between, it’s useful to remember that when our love for our children is blind — it can also be dangerous.

(Betsy Hart is the author of the forthcoming “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids — and What to Do About It.” E-mail her at letterstohart(at)comcast.net.)

One Response to "The approaching dread of teenage drivers"

  1. jarrodlombardo  December 28, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    “69 percent said that they speed to keep up with traffic.”
    In some states, this is taught in Driver’s Education classes.

    From the New Mexico Driver License Manual (http://www.tax.state.nm.us/pubs/mvddrvrs.htm):
    “Going much slower than other vehicles can be just as bad as speeding. It tends to make vehicles bunch up behind you and causes the other traffic to pass you. If vehicles are piled-up behind you, pull over when safe to do so and let them pass. You should either drive faster or consider using roads with slower speeds.”

    Why does the bottom bit say that “It Takes a Parent” is “forthcoming?” Is there a new version in the works?

    –Jarrod

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