by Shadra Bruce

When I got my license, I was 15 years old. I was a straight A student. I was trustworthy and well behaved. But… the temptation to go places I shouldn’t be, or do things I shouldn’t do was more than I was able to bear at times, especially with peer pressure along for the ride. I survived my own lack of maturity – barely. I recall driving on the freeway; missing my exit, and executing a U-turn in 65-mile per hour traffic to get to the other side. I also remember driving up to the mountains for a weekend getaway with a friend (without prior parental approval) and feeling extremely tense on the curvy mountain roads on which I had no experience. Just after graduating from high school, I was hurrying to work when traffic ahead of me stopped suddenly. I wasn’t wearing my seat belt, and when I rear-ended the car in front of me, I was thrown forward and split my chin open on the steering wheel and bit through the sides of my tongue. It totaled my car and the car of the person I hit, who happened to be my driver’s ed instructor’s wife.

It’s no wonder, then, that while my husband worries about the kid driving, I have nightmares. He sees it as a rite of passage; I see it as a 50/50 chance of handing our teenagers an early death sentence. Ok, so it probably is not that extreme, but consider these statistics (they were enough to convince me that teens don’t need to drive nearly as much as they do):

  • Car accidents are the leading cause of death among 16 to 20 year olds, accounting for approximately 1/3 of all fatalities in this age group.
  • People ages 16-19 account for less than 7% of the driving population in the U.S. but are involved in more than 20% of reported traffic fatalities.
  • Death rates for 17-year-old drivers are nearly 4 times higher than the average for 25 – 64 year olds.

When I was in high school (in Idaho), the driving age was 14. 14!! My parents certainly didn’t let me behind the wheel at that age, and even as a rebellious teenager, I couldn’t really argue with them – I wasn’t even that great on my bike. But, when I got my license, I also got a car for my 16th birthday. (Sorry, kids, it’s not gonna happen).

Our oldest son opted not to get his driver’s license. We were living in a small village where everything is within a short walk or bike ride, so he never felt the need. By the time our daughter was a teen, we were back in Boise, and driving was almost all she thought about (except boys). Luckily, Idaho had raised the driving age since I was a teen, and when Kira got her license there, she was required to spend 50 hours in the car with us before driving on her own. New York has similar rules.

Kira has survived. She’s a good driver, and the only accident she was in was caused by a trucker who ran her off the road, totaling her car but leaving her intact. And, we’re back in our small village where everything is within walking distance. But we have two more headed toward that “rite of passage,” so I’m stocking up on the hair dye, because they both seem to think driving is something they just have to learn how to do.

My husband and I may see the privilege of driving differently in some ways, but we agree on one thing: parents should not hand over the keys to the car, nor should they pencil whip the supervised driving requirements. Before your teen driver even starts the car, have them get familiar with how to turn on the windshield wipers and the headlights and know the difference between the brake pedal and the gas. Your teen should know how to adjust the mirrors to be able to see as clearly as possible. Make it clear that seat belts are required and that guest passengers aren’t allowed (New York passed a law limiting the number of passengers a teen driver can have, but regardless of the legality, too many passengers is a bad idea). And cell phones simply should not be allowed to be on when the car is.

Letting your teen get his or her driver’s license should implicitly require an investment of time from mom and dad to assist in the learning to drive process. Spend the required 50 hours with them. Talk to them about driving techniques. Don’t just hand them the keys and send them out for a joy ride.

Oh – and Mr. Reed? Sorry about your Honda.