Law enforcement officers report that recent legislative and educational efforts have begun to make a dent in the problem. These measures include the 2000 state law restricting the number of teen passengers in a car with a new driver at the wheel, an increase in the minimum time period between permit and driver's license, and specialized driver-safety education programs in schools.
Despite these initiatives, teen drivers continue to face a very real risk of being involved in a serious accident. And there is only so much that law enforcement officers and schools can do to reduce that risk. Safe driving, they say, begins at home.
"The one thing that all parents should realize is that our children learn from what they see us do," says Lieutenant Robert Gray, who heads the community safety unit of the Richmond Police Department. "Our children drive the way they have seen us drive all along."
Driving safely yourself is the best guarantee that your child will grow up to be a safe driver. "When you accelerate through that yellow light because you want to hurry up and get somewhere, they're going to do the same thing when they're behind the wheel," says Netherland.
Adults have years of experience working in their favor when they make less-than-ideal driving choices. Teens don't. "Driving is a retained motor skill," says Gray. "Once we become accustomed to doing it, we do much of it by reflex."
A teen with a newly issued license in hand hasn't had time to develop conditioned reflexes. Every single driving decision requires concentration including the routine second-by-second decisions that older drivers take for granted.
"Experience does a lot," says Officer Pierre D. Tremblay, a crash investigator with the Henrico County Division of Police. "When kids get in the car and lean over to the right, they don't realize that when they lean they're turning the wheel to the right."
Tremblay views the issue of young driver safety with the double vision of a police officer and parent. He's already set guidelines for teaching his 13-year-old daughter, Desarae, how to handle an automobile.
"She's not going to drive by herself period until she can prove she can drive," he says. He plans to stress the importance of paying attention. "The number one cause of traffic crashes is driver inattention," says Gray. It's especially dangerous for new drivers who don't have the reflexes to compensate for a momentary distraction.
It can be hard enough for a new driver to stay focused on the road. Add a cell phone conversation or a stereo adjustment to the equation, and the risk of an accident is greatly increased. Parents can help safeguard young drivers by restricting activities that result in inattention. That could mean forbidding the use of cell phones while driving or requiring that a new driver wait a year before having friends in the car.
Tremblay advocates taking an active role in teaching your child to drive safely. "A lot of parents think that driver's education in school teaches kids everything they need to know. That's not true. It's about the basics." In particular, the courses may not teach teens how to avoid colliding with the bad drivers they encounter. It's up to parents to make sure their children learn defensive driving skills.
Timing may be the most crucial element in keeping your child safe on the roads. As a parent, you're the best judge of whether your child is ready to drive. Even after your child has earned a license, you can still insist on supervised driving.
Attitude is another important issue to address. No amount of instruction can benefit teen drivers if they don't take it seriously. "They feel like they're invincible," says Tremblay.
When speaking at high schools, Netherland gets attention by throwing a cantaloupe against a wall. "It will splatter all over the place and I'll say, 'That was your head that just splattered against the windshield because you weren't wearing a seatbelt.'" He also describes the most difficult duty in his job description notifying parents that their child was killed in a car crash. Parents can try a similar tactic, talking with their children about people in their family or community who were seriously injured or killed in car crashes.
If teens continue to feel personally invincible, they may be affected by the possibility of killing others while behind the wheel. Netherland tells teens that driving a vehicle is similar to holding a loaded weapon. One careless moment can result in the deaths of passengers, other drivers and any pedestrians in the way.
"I know that when they get their license, they have that sense of freedom," says Netherland. "With that sense of freedom comes a huge responsibility." FS