Back to school nights are in full swing in districts across the state. If you’re the parent of a high school-age student, I encourage you to attend. And if you’re the parent of a sophomore, I urge you to not only participate, but to make it a point to track down your teen’s driver education teacher. (If you’ve already attended back to school night, find out who instructs the program in your distract and get in touch via phone or e-mail.)
Unlike year-long courses of study (i.e., math, English or history), driver education is typically taught in one marking period as part of the health and physical education curriculum. If your teen has driver education first semester, you may -- as you walk through your teen’s schedule -- meet the instructor. But more likely, you’ll hear about gym class. Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against PE. But recognizing that car crashes are the number one killer of teens and that no other age group on the road has a higher crash risk, I think parents should be asking “how will you use that 30-hours of instruction to impress upon my child that driving is deadly serious business?”
But the questions shouldn’t end there. Recognizing the critical role parents play in teaching their teens to drive, I recommend asking for an overview of the teacher’s lesson plans so that you can reinforce what’s being taught through “kitchen table” discussion and in-car instruction. Also ask the teacher if he offers a refresher for parents since it’s probably been a good two or more decades since you’ve had drivers ed and a lot has changed. (Ever heard of GDL or that 10 and 2 is out?)
I’ve worked with and met many driver education teachers around the state and I can tell you they’d love to hear from and partner with parents. There are teachers who run driver education nights, host parent/teen orientation programs, and even require parental involvement through homework assignments. But the vast majority of driver education teachers have little or no interaction with moms and dads.
I’d even venture to say that many parents don’t know when their teens are taking driver education. My son, now a high school senior, didn’t come home one day and announce, “I had drivers ed today.” No, I had to ask and I kept on asking what he was learning throughout the semester in an effort to not only reinforce it, but to help me as well (heck, I’ve never taught anyone how to drive before).
Okay, full disclosure here. If you’ve never read my blog before, you may not know that teen driving is my passion (I lead the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition) or that I make my living working in transportation safety. But I’d challenge anyone who thinks driver education isn’t important. Driving is an essential life skill -- one that if not performed safely, can have deadly consequences.
Just ask Sangeeta and Sunil Badlani, who lost their 11-year-old son Nikhil in a fatal car crash on June 11, 2011. Their van was struck two times in an intersection. First by a driver who failed to stop at the stop sign and then, after it rolled, by a car coming in the opposite direction. They’re now working through the Nikhil Badlani Foundation, to impress upon all of us the importance of driver education. They want teens, parents and all roadway users to know and adhere to the state’s motor vehicle laws, obey all signs and signals, stay alert and focused, plan ahead, and make safety priority number one -- concepts introduced and discussed in driver education classes.
We can honor the memory of Nikhil and the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who have lost their lives on our nation’s roadways (an average of 93 die every day), by not only taking driver education seriously, but making it a priority. Get to know and partner with your teen’s driver education teacher and driving school instructor. Reinforce what your teen is learning in class and practice it on the road. Not only will your teen benefit, but you will, too. And when we drive smart -- the result of getting educated -- we can save a life.