My Story: How I Became An Advocate For Safer Teen Driving
On December 2, 2006, my seventeen-year-old son, Reid, the driver, died in a one-car accident. On a three-lane Interstate highway that he probably never had driven before, on a dark night just after rain had stopped, and apparently traveling above the speed limit, he went too far into a curve before turning, then over-corrected, and went into a spin. While the physics of the moment could have resulted in any number of trajectories, his car hit the point of a guardrail precisely at the middle of the driver’s-side door, which crushed the left-side of his chest.
Reid’s accident was a precursor to a string of horrific accidents in Connecticut. In August 2007, four teenagers, all residents of suburban towns west of Hartford, got into a car, headed home from a party in the town of Bristol. The car was what buffs call a high performance vehicle. As the driver, age nineteen, headed on a rural road toward the homes of his passengers – two teenage girls, one boy –he tried to execute a controlled skid through a turn. I am sure that such a move, properly executed by a stunt person on a closed track, is thrilling. Except this was not a controlled environment, and the car’s speed was estimated by police at 140. When his car ran out of curve, he crashed and died, as did his three passengers, at a scene described by police as beyond their comprehension and experience. An elderly couple in an oncoming vehicle was severely injured.
Then in October, a seventeen-year-old tried to maneuver around a car hauling a boat trailer, did not get back in his lane quickly enough, and hit a truck in the opposite lane. He died, along with his fourteen-year-old sister and a fifteen-year-old friend of his sister’s.
Reading news accounts of these accidents, I reflected more intently on how I had – or hadn’t – controlled Reid’s driving. These tragedies focused me – and indeed, our entire state – on the dangers of teen driving. I found myself alternately defending my own conduct, but then asking – well, if I did what I was supposed to, how did Reid end up dead? Comparing other accidents to Reid’s, and other parenting to my own, allowed me to think that I had been a responsible parent. Reid had been driving a safe, sensible Volvo, not a race car. I had educated myself on Connecticut’s teen driving laws, made sure Reid was aware of them, given him more than the required twenty hours of on-the-road instruction, enrolled him in a driving school, demanded that he always wear his seat belt, revoked his driving privileges when he had disobeyed our household’s rules, and even twice confiscated his car for a week or more. Looking back, it did not seem that I had made some horrible, obvious mistake. So where did I go wrong? Or was I simply deluding myself? Would a stricter father’s son still be alive?
In November 2007, Connecticut’s Governor M. Jodi Rell appointed a Teen Safe Driving Task Force to revise and strengthen Connecticut’s Graduated Driver Laws, and appointed me as one of the “bereaved parents” on that task force. In four months in early 2008, our Task Force rewrote Connecticut’s rules from top to bottom, and the Governor signed Connecticut Public Act 08-32 into law on April 21, effective August 1, 2008.
As a result of these experiences, safer teen driving has become my avocation.
Tips From Reid’s Dad
My basic list of cautions for parents of teen drivers
- Safer teen driving starts with informed, conservative decisions about whether teens get behind the wheel of a car in the first place. Teaching teens to operate a vehicle safely is Step 2.
- Driving is the leading cause of death for people under age 20 in the United States.
- Safer teen driving is everyone’s concern. In 2010, nearly 3,000 teen drivers died, but their crashes killed more than 3,000 passengers, other drivers, and pedestrians.
- There is no such thing as a safe teen driver. We can train teens to operate a vehicle, but we cannot overcome the facts that the human brain does not fully appreciate risk and danger until the person reaches the mid-20’s, and that safe driving requires several years of experience, not 20 or 50 or even 100 hours on the road and in a classroom. In addition, after being trained locally, teens regularly drive to places they have never driven in before, so they are learning simultaneously to drive and to navigate.
- Driver education classes, whether taught by a high school or commercial driving school, only provide basic instruction on how to operate a vehicle. For the reasons listed in No. 4 above, a graduate of “Driver’s Ed” is not an experienced driver.
- Teen driving laws, known in most states as Graduated Driver Laws or “GDLs,” have solid public safety evidence behind them. They prohibit or restrict the highest-risk driving by teens. Across the U.S., strict GDLs are reducing crashes and saving lives.
- Enforcement of teen driving laws is primarily up to parents; police can only help. Police cannot stop a vehicle based solely on a perception of the driver’s age.
- Just because teen driver laws that deal with passengers, electronic devices, seat belts, and curfews are hard for police to enforce doesn’t mean that these laws are ineffective, or that state law should not set safety standards.
- Don’t push a teen who, for whatever reason, is not ready to drive safely — which can be based on not appreciating the risks, physical or emotional immaturity, or fear. Just because a teen reaches the age where state law allows him or her to obtain a learner’s permit or license does not mean he or she is ready to drive safely. And if a driving instructor tells you that your teen is not or might not be ready to drive, don’t argue.
- Use a teen driving contract, and enforce it.
- Recognize the factors that substantially increase the already-high risk of a teen driver getting in a crash: speeding, drugs and alcohol, fatigue, bad weather, or an unsafe vehicle.
- Understand that each passenger in a teen’s car increases the likelihood of a crash.
- Demand full seat belt compliance by every teen driver, and every passenger in a car driven by a teen.
- Recognize the difference between “purposeful” and “recreational” driving. When teen drivers have a clear destination, route, and timetable and a consequence for arriving late, they are likely to arrive safely.
- “Joyriding” – driving for fun with no destination, reason, or timetable, and especially with passengers — is a well-documented cause of teen driver crashes.
- Be aware that the most dangerous hours of the day for teen drivers are the two hours directly after school lets out, and 9:00 p.m. to midnight.
- If a teen receives a ticket or citation, make him take his medicine quickly – accept the fine, penalty, retraining, or suspension without argument or delay.
- If you can afford one of the many technologies now available to track your teen’s driving, such as a global positioning system or vehicle speed tracking, buy and install it.
- Don’t compromise your teen’s safety for your convenience, or to save on gasoline. Don’t let the demands of your busy schedule lull you into allowing a teen to drive in unsafe circumstances.
In summary: Train your teen to thoroughly to operate a vehicle safely, and be a good role model, but before anything else, think carefully, day-by-day, about whether and whe n your teen should get behind the wheel.