March 2007

Top Stories
• Dead End
• Lead Time
• Ehud Update
• Break Through
• Letters to the Editor

• Joe Sestak

• Free Screening

In Their Own Words
• Judge Anne E. Lazarus

Living Judaism
• She Was

Raising A Mensch
• Key Decisions

The Kosher Table
• Mama's Vegetarian

Free Subscription

Past Issues
2008 J


    Email This     About     Subscription     Donate     Contact     Links     Archives  

Auto accidents are the leading cause of death for 16- and 17-year olds.

Can I Have The Keys?
What parents need to know about teen driving.

-- Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston

According to the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a), parents are required to teach their children how to swim. Many scholars interpret this injunction to mean parents are responsible for teaching their children basic life skills, including how to recognize and avoid danger. Learning how to swim often involves years of lessons and close supervision until a child can clearly demonstrate that he has the skills, maturity, and experience to swim on his own. Even then, most parents maintain a healthy dose of caution.

It is unfortunate that too few parents approach the subject of teen driving with the same level of concern. They should. The leading cause of death for 16-year olds and 17-year olds is not drowning, or drugs or disease. It is car collisions. Like teaching your children to swim properly, teaching them how to drive means setting limits, applying close supervision, and making sure they understand how to make safe choices.

A few weeks ago, Akiba High School invited me to speak at a Home and School Association meeting about teaching children how to drive. True to the spirit of the rabbinic injunction, faculty and parents came out on the coldest night of the year to learn how to prepare teens for one of the biggest challenges of adolescence.

After my presentation, parents urged me to share this information with other families. In response to their wishes, this article and last month's article on car seats will begin an occasional series about teen driving. As I gather additional information, I will share it through my website and in this column. I also welcome submissions from others, particularly information about lessons learned and success stories.

Grim statistics

Auto collisions involving teens are, tragically, all too common. According to the recent National Young Driver Survey by The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm , one in five high school juniors graders reports being in a collision as a driver in the past year. Many of these collisions are serious, resulting in the death of more than 2,000 sixteen and seventeen-year old drivers and passengers each year in the United States.

The reasons new teen drivers and their passengers are at such high risk involve a complex combination of cognitive, behavioral, social, environmental, psychological, and experience factors --- all of which are not completely understood. Alcohol is a component in the risk picture, but it does not explain the statistics. Even parents who know for certain their kids do not drink still have something to worry about. The fact is, most teen car collisions result from a combination of inexperience, distraction and risk-taking.

A recent crash near Philadelphia is illustrative. Four teens were returning home from their jobs at a suburban mall. It was nighttime (inexperience). Multiple teens were in the vehicle (distraction). The driver was speeding, and the young woman was the only one wearing a seat belt (risk-taking). No one in the car had been drinking. The driver hit a pothole, lost control of the car, and hit a utility pole. This combination of inexperience, distraction and risk-taking proved fatal for the three young men. The young woman who survived said, “Conrad sped up, but it was so dark, he didn't see the pothole. Next thing I knew, we were flying through the air...”

Lack of experience

It takes experience to operate an automobile safely. Only after driving for some time does one learn how to automatically scan --- ahead, to the sides and behind --- for possible dangers. It also takes experience to appreciate how road, weather and traffic conditions can affect driving, because time is of the essence. From the moment a driver detects a hazard, she has approximately two seconds to avoid a collision. During this two-second window, the driver must go through a chain of processing, decision-making, and actions to avoid or reduce the severity of a collision. Unfortunately, most new drivers have poor scanning abilities. They tend to look straight ahead and detect hazards too late to avoid them. Once a hazard is identified, the young driver has limited experience on which he can depend to process the hazard, choose the correct course of action, and put a plan into place.

Three ways to address inexperience include extensive supervised driving, delayed licensure and parent-teen agreements. Some experts recommend at least 120 hours of supervised driving before a license to ensure sufficient variety in driving conditions, and continued supervised driving under more challenging conditions after the license is obtained. Sample plans for supervised driving can be obtained on the web.

When a teen should get a license should involve more than the amount of time that has passed since he got his learner permit. Parents should consider whether he has demonstrated mastery of vehicle operation, scanning skills, and anticipation. Together, they should be honest about whether they have gone through sufficient time together behind the wheel. Remember, the holding period between a learner and a license is considered a minimum. A teen does not have to go to get his license after Pennsylvania’s six-month holding period if he is not ready.

Parent-teen agreements around driving should be negotiated before the license is obtained. The agreement should require the driver to gain experience under low risk conditions before adding more hazardous conditions (night-time driving, highway driving, driving with passengers, etc.). Multiple examples of parent-teen agreements can be found on the the web .

It is important to note that supervised driving and parent-teen agreements are active areas of research and there is no consensus among experts about the exact recommendations.

Too many distractions

Safe teen driving is also threatened by the distractions that abound in the lives of teens. Anything that reduces a teen’s focus on driving --- passengers, cell phones, loud music --- can slow a driver’s reaction time and effectively reduce that critical two-second reaction window. Research shows that teen drivers carrying one teenage passenger have twice the risk of a fatal crash as teens driving alone; the risk of a fatal crash is five times as high for teens carrying two or more teenage passengers.

It is important that teens not carry passengers for at least the first six, preferably twelve, months of independent driving, and then introduce only one passenger for a further 6-12 months. Other distractions, like hands-free or hand-held cell phones, are hard to manage while driving even for people with years of experience. During the early high risk driving period, new drivers should definitely not use cell phones while driving. Many states have recognized these hazards and have added passenger restrictions to graduated driver licensing laws and cell phone prohibitions to driving laws.

Taking risks

Inexperience and distractions are further complicated by the tendency of adolescents to take risks. There are times, of course, when risk-taking can be healthy and responsible, such as getting a job after school or trying out for a new sport. But taking risks while driving can be deadly.

Speeding is one of the most common forms of risk-taking among teens. According to statistics, 40% of teens see friends driving at least 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. Speeding increases stopping distance and reduces the two-second collision avoidance window. It also increases the likelihood that the collision will result in injury. Remember, the energy of a collision increases quadratically with increasing speed (as E = mv2/2)).

For example, a teen driving 40 mph in a 30 mph zone may simplistically think that they are “only” going 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. But that 33% increase in speed translates into a 78% increase in collision energy.

The most dangerous risk-taking involves impaired driving. Whether the impairment is from alcohol, drugs, or fatigue, impaired drivers have slower reaction times and less control of the actions needed to avoid an accident. Laboratory studies demonstrate that deterioration in driving performance after being awake for 18 hours is comparable to driving with blood alcohol level of 0.08 mg/dl (the legal limit). Despite all of the education around drinking and driving, half of teens report seeing drunk driving by teen drivers at least sometimes, while an alarming three-fourths of respondents report seeing fatigued driving by teens.

Where do we start?

Parents need to leverage their important roles as not only teachers and supervisors but also as financial backers around driving. Most teens report that they rely on their parents to cover much of the cost of driving, including the cost of tickets, repairs, and insurance. Parents need to make sure our teens take the responsibility of driving to heart. Having them assume financial responsibility for their driving is a good first step.

However, teens and their parents cannot do it alone. Friends need to look after each other, making sure that they are supportive of safe driving. Schools need to recognize the danger associated with drowsy driving, especially when teens are driving other teens home after extracurricular activities.

I encourage community discussion around teen driving. As a community, we need to work with our teens to change the statistics. It needs to become the norm that teens prepare for excellence in driving just as they prepare for excellence in sports, music and school: With concentration, discipline, and experience. Before teens go out to drive, they need to be ready body and mind. People’s lives depend on it.

Previous Columns

Raising A Mensch Section Editor: Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston parenting @ pjvoice.com
Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston is a practicing pediatrician, associate professor of pediatrics and Scientific Director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She welcomes your comments, questions, contributions and suggestions for future columns.

Did you enjoy this article?

If so,

  • share it with your friends so they do not miss out on this article,
  • subscribe (free), so you do not miss out on the next issue,
  • donate (not quite free but greatly appreciated) to enable us to continue providing this free service.

If not,