This week on Facebook I received a photo of my lovely niece Olivia from Georgia proudly holding her first drivers license. I immediately sent a message: “Olivia, this is your Aunt Vivian speaking. Drive carefully. Save the texts and conversations for when you are not driving. Don’t pick up hitchhikers. Keep your doors locked. Wear your seat belt. You are precious to so many, and I love you at a distance.”
I never intentionally picked up a hitchhiker, but a big brute of a man jumped into my car as I was leaving a parking lot at the University of Toledo and gave me directions as to where I was to drive him. I did and he got out and said, “Thank you.” After this incident, I began to lock my doors.
A day after I sent the text to Olivia, a former student and sports photographer James Copes emailed me that two of the athletes he has photographed had been killed in a car crash and photographs were being requested (Three teens were killed in that wreck which was so mangled that law enforcement could not determine who was driving).
When we add our teens to our car insurance, the rates go up dramatically, especially for boys. Why? Insurance companies know the statistical data that, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens and that seven teens, ages 16 to 19, died every day in 2010 from motor vehicle injuries. Further, per mile, drivers in that age group are three times more likely than drivers age 20 and up to be involved in a fatal crash.
So why are teens at risk? Speed, inability to see dangerous driving scenarios such as ice and snow, alcohol/drugs, distractions with cell phone use or from passengers in the car, and failure to wear a seat belt. Also, the part of the brain that allows us to anticipate consequences of actions, the prefrontal cortex, is not yet fully developed in teens. Thus, teens may get in a “show off” mode to demonstrate that they are invincible. After all, they’ve been brainwashed by seeing thousands of hours of drivers in television shows, movies, video games, and car commercials that demonstrate maneuvers that are exciting and for which loud and extended applause in the form of blinking lights, admiring glances of others or vociferous wows is the outcome.
As parents and grandparents, it’s our responsibility to know, for example, that deaths are more likely between 3 p.m. and midnight and on the weekends. Curfews of 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. are, thus, important for the youngest drivers as is limiting the number of teens in a vehicle at a given time (The more teens, the more likely an accident) and minimizing weekend driving, especially during evening hours.
We also must let our teens know that they can call us at any time if they or the driver of a vehicle in which they are riding is impaired (alcohol, drugs or tired) or driving in an unsafe manner, we will come get them.
Further, we must model safe driving behavior by driving defensively, following the speed limits, and always wearing our seat belts. A big no-no is driving while tired or driving under the influence of the slightest amount of alcohol, street drugs or prescription drugs that cause drowsiness or erratic behaviors.
You may think, We’re in this fine restaurant and I can have a glass or wine or a beer with my meal. I’ll be just fine to drive. This sends a message to your children that it’s all right to drink and drive. They don’t see that it’s very little wine or beer: they just see that their parent is drinking and driving.
Few of us have not had vehicle accidents. Many of us have walked away from them; some of us have been carried away on a stretcher (I was at age 26 in a crash in which I suffered a fracture of my second cervical vertebra). And in spite of best driving behaviors, some will die. It, however, is about reducing risk. And that is the teen driver’s job and ours as well: to reduce risk, thus, endorsing the value of our lives.