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Before you hand over the keys

Parents need to make sure their kids are truly ready to drive. Crash rates for teens are high.

January 08, 2007|Valerie Ulene | Special to The Times

On my 16th birthday, my parents escorted me to the Department of Motor Vehicles for my driving test. When I passed, it came as a relief to all of us. I rejoiced in my new independence, and my parents celebrated the fact that they no longer had to act as my chauffeur. Within days, my parents presented me with the keys to the brown Chevy Malibu my brother had driven before leaving for college -- and off I went.

Although I was lucky enough to get through high school accident-free, I was clearly something of a menace on the road those first few months with my license. A tighter rein might have kept me -- and everyone else on the road, for that matter -- a bit safer.

As was the case in my family, many parents seem almost eager to get their teenage children licensed and on the road as quickly as possible. For one thing, it's an enormous convenience. Once licensed, teens can drive themselves to school, shuttle siblings around town and help with errands.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics is advocating a more cautious approach toward teenage drivers. In a policy statement released last month, it recommended a number of steps that parents should consider taking -- and restrictions they should impose -- to reduce the risk that new, youthful drivers face.

"This supposed rite of passage is fraught with danger," says Dr. Dennis Durbin, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and co-author of the AAP policy.

Teen drivers have a crash rate almost two times higher than that of 20- to 24-year-olds, three times that of 25- to 29-year-olds and four times that of 30- to 69-year-olds. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for older teens and account for more than 5,000 deaths each year.

Inexperience is by far the most important factor underlying teen crashes, Durbin says. Teen drivers are more likely than seasoned drivers to get themselves into difficult situations and less capable of responding to them quickly. For example, new drivers might not notice a car backing down a driveway or a child running out into the street as readily as drivers with more experience. They also are likely to be slower to hit the brakes once they recognize the situation.

Risk-taking behavior such as speeding also plays a significant role in teen crashes. Peer pressure appears to make such behavior more likely.

When other teenagers are in the car, the likelihood of teen drivers being involved in a car accident increases dramatically. Compared with driving alone, 16- to 17-year-olds have a 40% greater risk of crashing when they have one teen passenger. With two teen passengers, their risk doubles, and with three or more it increases fourfold.

Licensing laws in California have improved considerably since I got on the road and are designed to give new drivers more time to gain experience in the safest possible manner. (See box.)

Though the laws are considered to be among the best in the country, they are still not enough, experts say. "Parents can always do better than the best law out there," Durbin says. "They need to act as a supplement to their state driving laws."

For one thing, parents should question the idea of letting a teenager drive as soon as he or she becomes eligible. Just because a child reaches "driving age" does not necessarily mean he or she should be allowed to drive. A teenager who is reckless or irresponsible at home or at school is unlikely to behave any differently behind the wheel of a car. "Driving is not a right, it is a privilege," Durbin says.

If a teen is deemed ready to learn to drive, there is a role -- at least initially -- for parents as instructors. "Make sure your child gets lots and lots of supervised on-road practice," urges Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, a professor of pediatrics at Phoenix Children's Hospital and lead author of the AAP policy. "Driving experience clearly improves driving skills, and the more practice teens get, the better their driving will be."

Even after children are driving independently, appropriate limits must be agreed upon and parents need to monitor and supervise driving activities. Parents should establish their own set of family driving restrictions and control access to the car.

Although a provisional license allows a teenager to be on the road until 11 p.m., a 9 p.m. driving curfew may be more appropriate for a young, newly licensed driver. Rules about cellphone use and seat belts should be delineated, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol discussed.

The AAP recommends that parents develop a written contract with their children outlining the rules, and if the contract is broken, there should be clear consequences. If a child adheres to the contract and develops a pattern of driving safely and responsibly, the rules can be gradually relaxed and greater privileges granted.

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