“Mom, we’ve got a problem,” four words I didn’t want to hear my teenage son say when he called one day after school. That problem turned out to be an altercation with a dump truck. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but my car is now in the shop awaiting $6,000 in repairs due to a sideswipe. Just nine days later, he called again and this time his opening statement was even more unsettling, “Mom, it’s really bad.” He was struck head-one by another vehicle that slid into his lane on a slick road. Again, no injuries, but dad’s car -- a total loss -- was towed from the scene.
Teens, as I’ve said repeatedly, have the highest crash rates of any age group on the road. And those first six months of independent driving (he’s been licensed since mid-August) are particularly dangerous. That’s because the novice behind the wheel doesn’t have the skills or experience needed to recognize a hazard and take corrective action. Researchers point to driver error as the most prevalent reason for teen crashes, with recognition (i.e., inadequate surveillance, distraction) and decisions errors (i.e., following too closely, driving too fast for conditions) topping the list.
While I’m inclined to encase my son in bubble-wrap and lock him in his room, that’s not going solve the inexperience problem. The only way he’s going to become a better driver is to drive. So three days later he was back on the road. I was holding my breath until he got to his destination, but upon receipt of his usual pithy text “here,” I exhaled.
My son and I have discussed both crashes numerous times since those fateful days before and after Christmas (talk about the ultimate gift, no one was injured) not only as we filled out the insurance paperwork, but to help him learn from the experience. I don’t want my teen to beat himself up about what happened (he is covering the deductible for the first incident and was shaken up by both), but for a new driver, a crash is the ultimate teachable moment.
Looking back on the first incident, he clearly misjudged the distance and speed of the oncoming vehicle (physics brought to life). “I honestly thought I had enough time to make the turn,” he said, “but I didn’t know how fast he was going or how close he really was.” He had also thought about turning right rather than left at the intersection (Four Bridges and Bartley Road in Chester adjacent to West Morris Central High School, the site, I’ve since learned, of numerous motor vehicle incidents) and going the long way home that day, but opted for the latter. I asked him if he’d thought about staying at school a bit longer to allow the traffic to clear (there are no roads more dangerous than those adjacent to a high school at dismissal time). “I didn’t mom, cause I hardly ever come home right after school.”
What’s the take away? Use extreme caution when pulling out into an intersection, look for large gaps in traffic and be mindful of that message on the side-view mirror that reads, “vehicles are closer than they appear.” And if you’re not sure, don’t go. I’ve also stressed to him that if cross-traffic is heavy, opt to go right and take the long way home or wait it out. It may seem like a waste of time, but if it means you’ll get home safely, it’s worth it.
The second crash was more difficult to control since the other driver failed to maintain her lane and crossed into my son’s, something that could happen to anyone regardless of experience. As he recounted what happened, I was glad to hear that he was looking ahead (scanning the road is critical for safe driving, but not something new drivers do very well) and saw her sliding. “I slowed down and stopped,” he said, “but I really didn’t have anywhere to go. It was either steer away from her into this big tree or sit tight.” He choose the latter and learned how cars respond in frontal crashes.
And that’s another important take-away from both of these incidents. He’s heard me preach over and again the importance of always buckling up and buying cars with the latest safety features. Both he and his passenger (the only one he’s allowed to transport) were wearing their seat belts (during both crashes), ensuring that they were in the right position when the airbags deployed during the head-on collision. Additionally, there were two impacts during this second crash -- the oncoming vehicle hit the one driven by my son and then spun and hit him again on the driver-side passenger door. The car he was driving absorbed the forces of the crash ensuring that the passenger compartment remained intact protecting the occupants.
So parents, if you’re thinking about buying your novice driver a car, opt for all the safety features you can find including front and side-impact airbags and traction stability control. If you’re considering buying a used car, check out the vehicle’s safety ratings via the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or NHTSA websites. If your teen shares the family cars, put him or her in the one that’s the safest.
In addition to being mindful of vehicle selection, stay involved. I’ve written this numerous times, teens who have parents who give them enough structured support to allow them to make good choices, but don’t compromise on safety, are less likely to crash. I know what you’re thinking, if that’s the case, why did my son crash not once, but twice in less than two weeks? (Believe me, I’ve beaten myself up about what I could have done to prevent this from happening.) The first was without a doubt the result of inexperience and the second nothing more than timing (if he had only left 5 minutes earlier or later). As an involved or what safety researchers refer to as an authoritative parent, I can take solace in the fact that he wasn’t speeding or on his cell phone and both he and his passenger were buckled up -- all behaviors reflective of teens who have parents who set and monitor safety ground rules.
At the same time, I can’t lose sight of the fact that while he’s gaining experience every time he gets behind the wheel, he still has a long way to go. It can take three to five years for a novice to be exposed to the myriad of driving situations he’ll encounter on the road. Building the muscle-memory needed to help a driver react quickly and appropriately in a variety of situations takes time. So that’s why I’ll continue to look for opportunities to drive with my teen every chance I get. As
one parent advocate who lost his teenage son in a car crash aptly noted, a license doesn’t a safe or experienced teen driver make, “it is up to [parents] to be an extra filter in the process...”