So, Page, you’re on your way to your driver’s license. That’s exciting—and eerie, since you got your learner’s permit the very same week a car crash nearly killed your cousin. All the more reason I’m feeling extra cautious and want you to hear me out.
Luckily, Bryson’s accident happened in the right place. Emergency crews came fast. He was airlifted to a big-city medical center, and then, hours later, to an even bigger one. He survived six weeks in intensive care and several surgeries. His scary burn, cuts, reorganized innards, and slight brain injury are all likely to heal.
The police aren’t sure what happened when that van cut in front of him and he swerved into the back of a parked flatbed truck on the side of the highway. But it’s pretty clear two things weren’t working in his favor:
- His age. He’s 19, three years older than you. Researchers have only recently learned that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s. In terms of risk assessment, judgment, and restraint, you guys literally don’t think like us.
- His inexperience. It takes three to five years of driving, in all kinds of situations, before drivers are good at understanding hazards and reacting safely, experts say.
All teen drivers face those challenges. That’s on top of the risks all of us face in two tons of fast-moving metal. So to psych myself up for sending you out on the road—to figure out if there are ways that we can lower the risks for you—I’ve done three things:
- First, your stepdad and I have reviewed how we handled the learning-to-drive thing with your five older siblings: what worked, what we wish we’d done differently.
- Next, I did a little research on the most proven ways to keep you safe (hey, I’m a journalist). Did you know that half of all high-school drivers will get into a car accident? That crashes kill more teens than other dangers you often hear about more—guns, suicide, cancer, and drugs? More than 2,500 teenagers, sweet kids like you and your friends, die behind the wheel every year in the U.S. Seven teens a day.
- Finally, I talked to an amazing expert, Tim Hollister. He’s done so much to push for safer teen driving (including writing the book Not So Fast: Parenting Your Teen Through the Dangers of Driving) that the National Safety Council just gave him its 2015 Teen Driving Safety Leadership Award. But beyond that, he’s living the nightmare that I fear, the one your aunt and uncle just missed: Hollister’s son Reid was killed in a car accident in 2007. He was 17.
Okay, deep breath.
All that’s the basis for this: a few key things you need to know, and do, before and after you get that prized license.
Understand that if we think you’re not ready, you’re not ready.
It doesn’t matter when the law says you can drive. Or what percent of your friends do. Or that your driver’s ed. instructor passed you. Or that you’ve completed the number of practice hours required by the state.
That may sound harsh, but making it our call as parents is one of the best things we can do, Hollister told me. (His new book, His Father Still, is all about how to balance protection and freedom.) If you sometimes think it’s a drag to be a teen, let me say parenting one isn’t always a picnic either.
We decided when you were ready to get your permit. We get to say “No” if we don’t think you’re ready for a license. And then after you have it, we’ll say “No” on any day we think you’re too tired or too stressed to drive or the weather is bad.
Sign on the dotted line: Here’s your teen driver agreement (TDA).
A “TDA” is a written, signed agreement between you and us that shows we all acknowledge the risks and dangers, states some clear rules, and gives consequences if they’re broken.
You’re right; your siblings didn’t have one. That was a mistake. I didn’t really know about TDAs then. After talking to Hollister and reading about them on places like Allstate, I think they’re a brilliant way to make everything clear, clean, and agreed upon before a ticket or a crash. After all, we’re (ultimately) legally and financially responsible for your driving. And we want to be sure you get how serious this whole driving thing is.
Every family should customize their own agreement according to their state laws and needs. Our version was inspired by this example, downloadable on Hollister’s blog, From Reid’s Dad.A few expectations are worth highlighting:
Store the phone out of reach, out of sight, out of sound. Every time.
I know, we hammer on this one a lot, but it’s not just a learning-to-drive rant. (You might recall that we suspended your sister’s driving privileges when we caught her texting from a stoplight. It’s still considered texting while driving. And it’s one of the ultimate no-brainer NOs.)
The best place for the phone is in the glove box, Hollister says. Earlier this year, an eye-opening Florida State study reported that hearing even the ping or vibration from an incoming text is distracting. So just turn the damn thing off.
Tunes off too.
While you’re learning, even fiddling with the radio dial—or, heaven forbid, searching iTunes for your favorite Hozier—is a dangerous distraction you can’t afford. Even when we’re not in the car, keep it off until we say it’s okay.
No passengers in the car for a long time.
Our state (California) says no passengers for the first year as a new driver. You and your friends all look forward to “getting your year,” and I admit it would make our lives easier not having to haul you around. I know not all of your friends’ parents even enforce this. We do, partly because of the liability risk. And then I learned this, which gives me pause even after the year is up:
“Decades of research show that crash rates go way up when passengers are in a teen driver’s car,” Hollister says. In fact, he has a little acronym, PACTS, for five huge dangers that present a choice every time you get behind the wheel:
- Passengers: Enough said.
- Alcohol/drugs: I hope to heck you know this—both as a driver and as someone who would never get in the car with a suspect driver. One-third of driving fatalities involve drinking.
- Curfews: Driving at night and especially on weekends is riskiest.
- Texting and electronics: As discussed!
- Seatbelts: As with all of the above, your responsibility for everyone in the car, every time.
Expect lots of questions.
A “traffic controller” is how Hollister puts our job with you, the “pilot,” before you slide into the cockpit of the car and take off. So we’ll be asking you lots of pesky questions that help you get in the habit of thinking about these things yourself.
Control Tower to Page: Where are you going, exactly? (Pilots have routes; they don’t joyride in planes.) Do you know how to get there? What route are you taking? Are you sure there’s enough gas in the car? Will anyone be in the car? How do you plan on letting us know when you get there and when you’re leaving?
Don’t freak when we check up on you.
Expect us to randomly ask you to hand over your phone after an outing—yup, so we can make sure you weren’t texting or talking.
Expect us to revisit the TDA to see how it’s going and whether anything needs changing—maybe like (see, it’s not all bad) a later driving curfew as you get older.
Assume the worst of everybody on the road.
You’re nervous and may think you’re not the best driver. But don’t give anyone else the benefit of the doubt. Assume they’ll do stupid things. Expect them to slam on their breaks without warning, pull out in front of you, not use turn signals, cut you off, run through red lights and stop signs. Because they will.
Pause to look both ways even after the light has turned green. Notice the wheels of the other cars in the intersection to see if they’re starting to move. Leave lots of space between you and the next guy. It’s called defensive driving. It’s the only way to drive.
Oh, one more thing: You won’t be getting a car of your own.
None of your siblings did either, as teenagers, so you probably aren’t expecting such a generous gift. But even if we won the lottery, you wouldn’t, not since we’ve learned that kids who own their own car or have a family car exclusively at their disposal crash at rates more than double those who have to share a car!
The good news (besides, we hope, your safety).
You might find all of this extreme. That’s okay. We’re your parents, trying to protect you. We’d rather be cautious than cool. We’d rather have you complain and grouse than not be able to hear you at all. (Actually, we’d love for you to be cheerful and understanding—and think of us as cool, too—but we’re realists.)
Anyway, you might like this: A friend told us about an incentive her mother used with her that we’re going to borrow. If you make it to 21 without an accident or any infractions, you’ll get a pretty great reward. (We’ll talk about what that is in private.)
Anything to help you go slow, think twice, and make smart choices. Because what we want more than anything else is to watch you blow out the candles on your 21st birthday.