Driving to Distraction: Putting Teens Safely in Driver’s Seat

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March 12, 2013


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If you’re the parent of a new driver, you probably feel anxious every time you hand over the car keys. And for good reason: Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The good news, experts say, is that you can take steps to lower the odds that your child will end up in a hospital or worse when he or she gets behind the wheel. In addition to keeping your kids safer, some of the measures have the added benefit of reducing your teen’s car insurance premium.

First, a look at some facts about teen drivers from years of national data compilation by insurance companies and federal health agencies:

  • In their first year of driving, 63 percent of teens get into a crash.
  • Teens are three times more likely to get into a fatal crash than drivers age 20 and above.
  • The likelihood of a fatal crash increases with each additional young passenger in the vehicle, according to a 2012 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
  • Inexperience and distraction are the cause of more accidents than reckless driving or alcohol.

“Texting while driving is a huge distraction and kids know it’s wrong,” said Fernando Mendoza, M.D., medical director of the pediatric emergency centers at Baptist Children’s Hospital and West Kendall Baptist Hospital. “But even as they’re being wheeled off to Radiology to get X-rays, these kids are texting their friends.”

Accidents can happen even when inexperienced drivers try to stay focused. Like many South Florida teens, 17-year-old Maya Siman had two minor fender-benders in her first 18 months of driving. Fortunately, no one was hurt. “When I got my learner’s permit, I was backing up in a parking lot and hit the bumper of a car that was parked behind me,” she said. “I just didn’t see it. Another time I misjudged how close a garbage can was to the road and I hit it with my side mirror. The mirror flew into the car, past my face, and cracked the windshield.”

Maya believes that she’s become more confident, more aware and more cautious since her accidents simply by spending more time driving — and data backs that up. Florida law requires a driver with a learner’s permit to put in 50 hours of supervised driving, 10 of those at night, before testing for an intermediate license. But with fewer schools offering driver’s education and with the cost of private driving lessons prohibitive for many, some teens never reach the 50-hour requirement during the learner’s permit stage.

Even those who do meet the time requirement get better with experience, studies show. And it’s the ability to analyze risk, recognize hazards and manage space that many teen online driving programs target in their training, which is endorsed by auto insurance companies, law enforcement agencies and parenting groups.

Adept Driver’s teenSMART program, for example, combines parent-teen driving exercises, computer scenarios that provide instant feedback and a certification test that, if passed, qualifies teens for a discount with AllState insurance in most states (including Florida).

The Toyota Teen Driver program emphasizes avoiding distractions. Search online or check with your insurance company to find a program. Some are free; others charge a fee.

Dr. Mendoza believes messages about safe driving begin at home and at a young age. “It’s part of the ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ talk that we, as parents, need to be continually having with our kids,” he said. “Kids do listen to their parents. And we have to be role models. As adults we need to wear seat belts, stay off of our phones while we drive and never drink and drive.”

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