In the flurry of the final weeks of the 2010 election campaign, you probably missed National Teen Driver Safety Week in late October, but it’s not too late to pay attention to this issue. Automobile crashes are the leading cause of death for Alabama’s high school population. For 16-year-olds, usually our newest drivers, the crash rate is three times that of other teenagers.
The number of teens who died in 2007 could fill up 10 sophomore homeroom classes, ranking Alabama as one of the deadliest states nationwide for young drivers. And those numbers don’t reflect the other drivers killed or injured when a teen driver is behind the wheel.
Parents can change these deadly statistics by talking to their teens and enforcing the new rules of the road strengthened this year by the Alabama Legislature. A recent study found parents who set boundaries by drawing up “driving contracts” or discussing expectations are likely to have good results. The study shows teens who hear and understand their parents’ concerns are half as likely to crash, twice as likely to wear seat belts, 71 percent less likely to drive while intoxicated and 30 percent less likely to use a cell phone while driving.
During the 2010 legislative session, Alabama lawmakers strengthened our state law for young drivers. The stronger provisions took effect in July — although many teens and parents may not have noticed. The standards ensure that teenagers don’t go from driver’s education to full licensure all at once.
Like virtually everything else in life, driving takes lots of practice. Nationwide, graduated driver’s-licensing laws that provide new teen drivers with time to gain experience under safer conditions have reduced the number of teen driving deaths and injuries. Provisions of the new Alabama law require:
• Only one friend or younger sibling may ride in the car with the newly licensed driver. Additional passengers may only include parents, guardians and licensed drivers over the age of 21.
• No cell phones allowed while driving. That includes texting.
• A 16-year-old may graduate to an unrestricted license at age 17 if he has been licensed for more than six months and has no moving violations. Otherwise, the restrictions remain in effect until the driver is 18.
• State Farm Insurance offers some wonderful parenting tips on its website to keep teen drivers safe. Parents should emphasize that driving is a privilege that can be gradually increased after an adolescent demonstrates maturity and experience. For brand new drivers, State Farm offers a number of smart safety rules:
• Use seat belts on every trip — drivers and passengers. That’s actually state law. All passengers in the front and back seats must buckle up. It’s important to get into the habit early on. Most adolescent passengers who die in wrecks are not wearing seatbelts.
• Follow all driving laws, including no speeding. High speeds increase accidents.
• Do not ride with an unlicensed or inexperienced driver. More than half of teens who die in car crashes are not behind the wheel. A child’s chances of getting into a fatal wreck rise sharply if he is with a teen driver. Parents should remind their teen to be a safe passenger by not talking loudly, chatting on a cell phone, playing loud music or acting wild.
• No nighttime driving when first able to drive alone. Most accidents occur at night. Thirty-eight states bar children from driving at night, but most laws are weak on the exact curfew time. In Alabama, newly licensed teen drivers may not drive between midnight and 6 a.m. with a few exceptions. Parents should consider keeping their new drivers off the road after 9 p.m. when teens are most likely to crash.
• Stay off highways, interstates and other high-speed roads in the beginning. Start on slower, more familiar roads.
• No driving in bad weather.
• Control the keys. Even if a teen has his own car, he should get permission to drive. Gradually increase the amount of time a teen can drive.
Driver education begins the process of learning to drive, but teens need many, many hours of practice to become safe, competent drivers. Fifty hours is a minimum, not a maximum. Take advantage of every day your child is 15 years old and driving with a learner’s permit. Encourage your teen to get his permit on his birthday and start driving under your supervision.
The improved graduated driver’s license law will go a long way in reducing teen car crashes, deaths and injuries in Alabama. And yet compliance is not guaranteed.
Parents need to do their part. As with other house rules, parents must enforce the new law even when it is inconvenient. That may mean making hard choices and saying no to things like additional friends in the car or late night driving.
Teenagers often believe they are immortal. It’s hard for them to understand risk and danger. Parents can help them understand that driving in the early stages with little experience can be dangerous and even deadly, not just convenient and fun.
With holiday traffic just around the corner, if our teenagers are driving under the influence, let’s hope they are driving under positive parental influence and the requirements of our state law.
Linda Tilly is the executive director of VOICES for Alabama’s Children, a nonprofit multi-issue child advocacy organization. E-mail: email@example.com.