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If you're like most parents, you have mixed feelings every time you watch your teen pull out of the driveway. You're probably relieved to be off the hook for the constant carpooling you've been doing for years. But chances are you're also well aware of the dangers behind the wheel. Car crashes are the number-one cause of death for U.S. teenagers and about 6,000 young drivers die on the roads each year. Of course you worry constantly that your kid will be one of them.
The good news is that many teens now understand the danger of combining drinking and driving, according to a 2007 survey from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the insurance company State Farm. The bad news, though, is that many of these new drivers still don't recognize the hazards of other activities, such as talking on a cell phone or hitting the road while drowsy -- activities that are equally dangerous. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Utah found that when people drive and talk on their cell, they are as impaired as when they drive intoxicated. Even worse, a new State Farm parent survey found, you may unwittingly be setting a bad example for your child. Many parents confessed to speeding, using their phone, and engaging in other bad driving habits that kids pick up.
That's why it's so important to educate your child about good driving habits today. We asked experts for the smartest ways to correct your child's misconceptions -- and improve your own driving while you're at it.
We all know that dialing and chatting on a phone makes it harder to concentrate on the road. In fact, 94 percent of parents who responded to the State Farm survey said they tell their kids not to do it even though 65 percent of them are guilty of that very crime.
Of course, kids follow suit. A whopping 89 percent of teenagers said that their peers chat on cell phones while driving. What makes this especially dangerous is that distractions can affect a 17-year-old more than they would an adult, who has more mature judgment and has been driving for much longer, says Laurence Steinberg, PhD, a psychology professor at Temple University. "Teens are proven to be more impulsive and less attentive, especially behind the wheel."
Until now parents and safety experts have thought that girls are likelier than boys to be talking -- or worse, texting -- behind the wheel. But that may be changing. "As technology gets more sophisticated and you can put cool games and music on your phone, I definitely notice boys using electronic devices more," says Eric Sommer, an 18-year-old senior at Gibson City Melvin Sibley High School, in Gibson City, Illinois. "It may be okay when a passenger is gaming, but it gets dangerous when he reaches over to show the driver the great score he got. And by the way, iPods and MP3 players are just as bad, because you have to look at the screen to program them."
You can't underestimate that old enemy, fatigue. "My kids are very busy," says Cheryl Sommer, the mother of two teen drivers, Eric and his brother, Adam, 16. "They have school projects, homework, extracurricular activities, prep for standardized tests. Some of their friends also have jobs at fast-food restaurants that may keep them at work until midnight. They then drive themselves to school in the morning, when they're exhausted after getting very little sleep."
Nodding off in the classroom is bad enough but doing it behind the wheel may be deadly. In fact, a North Carolina study found that drivers 25 and younger were involved in 55 percent of crashes in which the driver fell asleep. "I'd say that driving drowsy is as dangerous as driving drunk," says Judy Weber-Jones, a driver's education teacher at the school Eric and Adam attend. "Teens might take over the wheel if they see that the driver has been drinking or drugging, but if the person is simply exhausted, not many kids would think it's serious enough to intervene."
The solution is simple, says Weber-Jones. If you suspect that your kid hasn't had enough sleep, drive him to school. If he's out late, be sure he understands that no matter what the hour, you would rather come and pick him up than have him (or the friend who's giving him a ride home) fall asleep in the driver's seat.
Driving too fast is always risky. But admit it: You do it sometimes -- and your kid notices. More than 50 percent of mothers and fathers in the State Farm survey say that they occasionally drive more than 10 miles per hour faster than they should; 92 percent of kids report that they see other teens ignore the speed limit.
Speeding is a particularly dangerous habit for teens to pick up because they may not fully understand the rules of the road. Many of the teens who took part in a 2002 San Diego State University survey, for instance, told researchers that they believed speeding began at around 90 miles per hour.
When 16-year-old Daniel Andreassi, of Livonia, Michigan, drove way too fast one night in May 2008, he crashed into another car, killing the other driver, 20-year-old Anthony Cosenza, and seriously injuring Cosenza's fiancee, Amy Adams. At the time of the accident Andreassi was driving at speeds up to 109 miles per hour in a 45-mph zone.
Exceeding the speed limit by even a small amount can have deadly consequences, too, as Ashley Melbourne, of Newport Beach, California, discovered. In May 2005 Melbourne was on the way to her prom with five passengers, including her best friend, Gillian Sabet, and Sabet's boyfriend, Jonathan Schulte. According to police reports, Melbourne was driving about 70 miles per hour on a highway, five miles above the limit, when she reached into the driver's side door pocket for some gum. She lost control of the car, which then rolled over, killing Sabet and Schulte, who weren't wearing seat belts. The other passengers survived. "I would give everything to have Gillian back," says her mother, Donna Sabet. "There will be no wedding, no grandchildren. There can be no closure."
Though 79 percent of young drivers say they often or always wear seat belts while driving, many kids are still reluctant to buckle up. In a 2003 Volkswagen survey, 32 percent of teens thought seat belts were "uncool," and 30 percent found them uncomfortable or worried that the belts would wrinkle their clothes. Even though most accidents happen within five miles of home, 20 percent of kids thought they didn't need belts for short trips.
Make wearing seat belts nonnegotiable for the whole family, parents included, advises Shelly Williams, of Ada, Oklahoma. "Then it becomes a habit," she says. "Now I feel naked without one." Her 16-year-old son, Cody Bolin, died in a car crash because he wasn't buckled up. "That tragedy didn't have to happen. He's gone, and we're brokenhearted," says Williams.
If your teen has one young friend in the car, the chances that she'll be in a fatal crash double; and if she's got two or more, the risk is five times higher, according to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia-State Farm survey.
This is due in large part to peer pressure, says Dr. Steinberg. He conducted a study in which people played a video game that simulated the experience of driving toward an intersection as the traffic light turned yellow. When they played alone, teens and adults took an equal number of risks to make the light before it changed. If a player's friends were watching, teens crashed twice as often, while adults did not.
"When I'm driving with friends, I definitely notice that they create distractions, goofing off and messing with the radio," says Jenni Bolin, 19, Shelly Williams' daughter. "The driver wants to look cool in front of her friends, so she lets them do what they want."
Even worse, with a car full of teens a young driver may be tempted to take risks just for fun or in order to impress friends. This was the case for 18-yearold James Gangwes, of Springfield, Missouri, who "hill-topped" (driving at high speeds to go airborne over hills) at least twice before crashing, killing himself and three passengers in January 2008.
To help reduce accidents like these, 35 states have passed laws requiring young, new drivers to have limited or no more than one teen passenger. If your state does allow several teens in the car, make your own "only one friend at a time" rule or tell your child to appoint a "designated passenger" who changes radio stations, answers cell phones, and makes sure everyone's belted up. Donna Sabet and her husband, David, came up with this concept after Gillian died. The Sabets cofounded JourneySafe.com, a nonprofit organization that promotes teen driver and passenger safety. "With so many things going on in a car, even careful kids can forget routine safety measures," says Sabet.
Here's the dilemma: A kid needs to hone his driving skills, but doing so puts him at risk for accidents. Even driver's education classes and the additional hours of adult-supervised driving that some states require (anywhere from 40 to 60) don't prevent teens' crash rates from rising in the first few months after the class or supervised practice period is over.
To protect your child you should accompany him for at least 50 hours after he's gotten his license, advises the American Automobile Association. He should drive around town, on the highway, and in all kinds of weather. "Teens must get experience in rain, snow, and ice, and they should drive at night, too," says Weber-Jones. "If they drive only in the daytime on dry roads, they won't be prepared for emergencies. You can't practice too much."
When you're in the passenger seat, don't inundate your child with scare tactics and threats. Instead of raising your voice and telling your child that she's driving too fast, calmly remind her that the speed limit is 30 miles per hour. Rather than criticizing him for making a turn that's too wide, point out that if he keeps the car closer to the road's shoulder, you'll both be safer. Even more important, be sure to praise good decisions.
Finally, don't recite a litany of fatal accidents other kids have had. In an experiment funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), teens exposed to scary messages by the media and their families actually increased their risky driving behavior, while those who heard more affirmative messages became safer behind the wheel.
If your teenager gets a speeding ticket or dings a fender, make her take responsibility for it. When she has to pay for her own mistakes she's likelier to become a more careful driver than those teens whose parents pay car-related bills, according to the NHTSA.
Eric Sommer describes a fender bender he once had. "No one got hurt, because it happened starting up from a stop sign in the middle of town, so I was going only about 5 miles per hour. Still, I hit a van and did $1,250 worth of damage. My mom footed the bill, but I had to pay her back at a rate of $300 or so a month. It was awful seeing all that money go down the drain. My friends and I are definitely more careful when we're driving now."
Finally, if you think your daughter is a safe driver simply because she happens to be a girl, think again: Seat belt use among young males rose 9.2 percent in a 10-year period, according to a recent study, while young females buckled up only 7.5 percent more often.
Similarly, the FBI reports that between 1997 and 2006 the number of arrests for driving under the influence (DUI) dropped about 6 percent for boys under 18 (to 8,546 in 2006), while the number of girls' DUI arrests rose more than 39 percent to 2,528 a year. Virginia Tsai, MD, an emergency medical physician at University of California, San Diego/Rady Children's Hospital, has a theory on why this is happening. "Female role models who've gotten DUIs -- like Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, and Mischa Barton -- give girls the impression that it's okay to drive recklessly," she says. That's why you want to be sure that you establish consequences if your daughter breaks the rules.
These strategies couldn't be simpler -- and they work.
SLAP ON A BUMPER STICKER
One HOW'S MY DRIVING? sticker on the back of your teen's car can help keep her accountable. If other drivers witness dangerous moves, they can call Steer Straight's 24-hour call center toll free. Staffers will create an incident report and e-mail it to a family member within 15 minutes. Go to steerstraight.com to sign up and get more information.
DRAW UP A CONTRACT
Several companies offer a safe-driving contract for teens and parents to fill out and sign. The contracts may include issues to discuss, including seat-belt use, the number of passengers your child may transport, and the grades she will maintain in return for driving privileges. You and your teen write in what you've agreed on and stipulate consequences for breaking the rules. To obtain a copy, go to allstateteendriver.com; aaaexchange.com (click "teen drivers"); or myteen.com/parent_teen_contract.htm.
FIND A COURSE
You should sign up your child for defensive-driving classes. Check out the National Safety Council's program called Alive at 25 (nsc.org/alive25) or search a directory for classes in your area.
CONTROL THE CAR
If you're in the market for a new car, look into the Ford Motor Company's 2010 models, many of which will include the MyKey feature. One of the car's keys has a computer chip that limits the driver to 80 mph; it can also be programmed to control the volume of the radio and emit a reminder beep if seat belts aren't fastened.
-- Abigail Cuffey
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2009.