Driven to Survive
Training teens to navigate safely requires more than a license
THE PROBLEM: My 17-year-old son Ben couldn’t wait to get his driver’s license. That little holographically enhanced, laminated ticket to freedom is every kid’s dream—and every parent’s nightmare. And parents have good reason to be concerned. Automobile crashes are the number-one cause of death for 16- to 19-year-olds.
Sadly, Ridgefield has experienced this firsthand. With another tragic crash this summer cutting short the life of a 16-year-old girl, a total of three young lives have been lost in the last two years. All three crashes were single-car incidents and utterly preventable. Surprisingly, all three teens were driving large, premium vehicles—the sheer size of which give most young drivers a false sense of safety. So what is a parent to do?
THE STATISTICS: Automobiles have gotten safer over the last two decades, with the addition of anti-lock brakes, air bags, stability control, and improved structural design. These improvements have lowered death rates in most countries, yet the U.S. automobile fatality rate, while dropping, is considerably higher than in Europe. For every billion kilometers driven, the U.S. has 8.5 deaths per year. In the UK, it is 5.7; in Sweden, the rate is 5.1; and in Germany, in spite of its much higher speed limits, the rate is 7.2. Within those numbers, our teen fatality is disproportiately high. Why?
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver error is the cause of 78 percent of all fatal crashes involving teens—while alcohol is only a factor in 13 percent of those. An incredible 43 percent of first-year drivers are involved in a crash. Year two is only slightly better, with a 37-percent crash rate. I refer to these incidents as crashes, not accidents. An accident is when a tree falls on your car. A crash is when you hit something. For example: you are driving along a windy road a bit too quickly and hit a patch of ice. Your car slides, you stab the brakes, and end up in a ditch. Accident or crash? Or, you are driving down Main Street. A driver opens the door of a parked car, a cyclist riding by swerves in front of you, and you hit the bike because you were looking at your phone. While the driver of the parked car is at fault, does that make you feel any better as the cyclist is taken away in an ambulance?
EDUCATION: Getting a driver’s license in most states is a fairly simple process. Put in a specified amount of time behind the wheel with a paid instructor or family member and take a classroom course. On license day, take a written test and a short driving test to make sure you understand the laws, can use your turn signals, and know how to park. Voilà! You can now go behind the wheel of a two-ton vehicle with only slightly restricted abandon. (Connecticut is one of many states that has graduated licensing, where restrictions are placed on both passengers and hours of operation.) And yet little or no consideration has been given to car control, emergency lane changes, or panic stops.
Ridgefield Police Captain Cliff Scharf has seen his share of crashes during his 30-plus years on the force. “The two biggest factors in crashes among young people are speed and inexperience.” Scharf also cites electronic devices and daydreaming as major contributors to distracted driving. “It is important to be aware of your surroundings and to look down the road for potential hazards. Drivers also need to practice zone control—positioning the vehicle so you have an escape route should the unforeseen happen.” This last practice is particularly useful on multi-lane roads where a vehicle alongside could limit your options to avoid an obstacle if needed.
To keep my son from becoming a statistic, I enrolled him in Skip Barber’s New Driver program at Lime Rock Park. The class was led by Bob Greene, founder of “Survive the Drive,” a program he brings to high schools throughout the Northeast. During Ben’s first turn behind the wheel for the emergency lane change, the instructor barked from the right seat to suddenly switch to another lane while the car was doing 40 miles per hour.
Afterward, I asked him what it felt like. “It scared the crap out of me,” he said. Good, I thought. A number of the cars spun out at first. But the drivers soon got it. They also practiced emergency braking and skid control.
LARGE VS SMALL: Training and guidance like that course teaches go a long way to instilling safety. But another factor is what types of vehicles teens drive.
Physics can’t be defeated. In a collision, small cars are more at risk than larger vehicles. But when choosing a vehicle for your teen, think car, not truck or SUV, because the perception of invulnerability can actually lead to more crashes. While large all-wheel drive SUVs have better grip in slippery conditions, their heavier weight and higher center of gravity negatively affect braking and cornering. Instead, buy the safest car you can—see iihs.org for ratings—and make sure your teen understands the vehicle and keeps two hands on the wheel. Ultimately, avoiding a crash is much better than surviving one.