Summer is a time of freedom for scores of freshly minted teen drivers, permits or licenses in hand and no school to distract from the open road.
But it’s also a time of danger, with teen driving crashes serving as the leading cause of death for young people.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell held a press conference earlier this summer, along with members of Impact Teen Drivers and the California Highway Patrol, to stress the importance of safe driving in these vacation months when teen crashes skyrocket.
“We’re here to tell teens it’s important that they celebrate and have fun this summer, but they need to do so safely and responsibly,” O’Connell said. “When driving, the focus needs to be on the road and not on distractions such as texting or talking on cell phones that place both driver and passengers in danger.”
According to the National Young Driver Survey, 20 percent of 11th grade drivers reported at least one car crash over the past year. Nearly three percent reported two or more crashes.
The majority of those crashes are caused by inexperience or distractions, not thrill-seeking behavior, according to Impact Teen Drivers.
That assessment matches up with what Keith Piper, owner of Turlock Driving School, has seen in his line of work.
“Don't try to drive like adults do,” Piper said. “You're not ready for it yet.”
Piper said that driving, like anything else, takes practice. Just as it’s silly to assume a high school football player could match up with a pro, he said, it’s folly to assume a new driver has the decision making skills and the reflexes to keep up with the demands of daily driving.
It all comes down to behind-the-wheel experience, according to Piper. Even drivers who obtain their licenses later in life face the same problems as 15 year olds with permits, Piper said, relating a tale of an 18 year old who went off to college a few months after getting his license – and promptly totaled his car.
The statistics bear out Piper’s claims, with crash fatality rates being highest for 16 to 17 year olds within the first six months after licensure. The fatality rate for drivers ages 16 to 19, based on miles driven, is four times higher than for drivers ages 25 to 69, according to Impact Teen Drivers. Teen drivers are found to be at fault in 66 percent of all fatal collisions they are involved in, despite accounting for only four percent of the state’s licensed drivers.
Piper said learning to drive isn’t about staying between the lines, keeping your speed steady, and reading the signs. It’s about developing cat-like reflexes and danger recognition skills, because driving is “a series of accident avoidance maneuvers.”
Piper said that developing those skills takes practice, patience, and a willingness to learn – not common traits among new drivers.
“They don't want to; they want to think that they're on a par with everybody else,” Piper said. “… They just want to get that license and get out there in that car and drive with the big dogs.”
With local schools no longer offering behind the wheel training – and the Department of Motor Vehicles no longer requiring that permit test-takers sign up for behind the wheel training prior to obtaining a permit – it’s more important than ever for parents to become involved in their children’s driving, Piper said.
“I want parents to really think about what they're doing while they're driving, break that down and impart that to their kids,” Piper said. “You can’t just turn a kid loose.”
For more information on teen drivers, visit impactteendrivers.org.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.