Just over a month ago, I joined the ranks of so many parents who have teens on the roads. Yet, even as I consider how well my son’s driving has developed this past year, I know many driving skills are obtained on the road, through experience. Simply put, driving is a high risk activity, and especially risky for teenage drivers. Did you know that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, accounting for more than one in three deaths in this age group? Those numbers translate to an alarming statistic that nearly 11 teens die in fatal car crashes every day on U.S. roads. I’m challenged to change these outcomes, both in my role as the Acting Director of the CDC’s Injury Center and, most personally, as a parent to my 16 year old son, Nick.
Graduated driver licensing systems, now in place in nearly every U.S. state, are an effective strategy for preventing crashes with new drivers. The Injury Center strongly supports GDL systems, which help teens get initial driving experience under low-risk conditions. Research suggests that GDL systems are associated with reducing injury crashes by up to 40 percent in 16-year-old drivers. Learn the details of the GDL system in your state – or better yet, encourage your teen to research the requirements and inform you, as mine did!
As helpful as laws on the books can be, we know a parent’s involvement with and supervision of their novice driver is a major factor in why GDL systems are so successful. With this in mind, the Injury Center has launched a pilot communications campaign called “Parents Are the Key”. You will be hearing more about this campaign in the future, but I’d like to share with you one of its key features and one I plan to implement with Nick, the parent/teen driving contract.
This contract is designed to clarify expectations about driving behaviors, such as the use of safety belts, NO cell phone talking or texting, NO drinking and driving, strict limits to the number of underage passengers, restricted night time driving and more. As in my contract with Nick, it is also helpful to spell out consequences for violating rules as well as include graduating steps to new privileges when guidelines are followed and experience is gained. Finally, as empowering as communicating with our teens and agreeing rules in writing can be, parents must lead by example. Nick’s eyes are on me each time my blackberry buzzes and beeps while I am behind the wheel. This experience taught us both that we can easily avoid the temptation when we turn the phone off before we turn the key!
We parents cannot minimize our role in helping our teens develop into safe and competent drivers, as much for them as for others sharing the roadways. And my reward for such intense focus on my son’s driving? The three little words I love to hear from my 16 year old: “Mom, I’m home.” I hope you will do all you can to hear those words from your teen and that they bring you as much peace as they do me.