Shortly after receiving his license, my 16-year-old son, Marcus, asked, “When can I drive?” With our family’s demanding schedule, we needed another driver. But was my teen ready just because he had a license?
As a claims adjuster, I have worked with accidents involving teens — the group at highest risk for crashes, statistically. I’ve seen the result of young motorists trying to handle a vehicle when driving at high speeds, carrying too many passengers or exercising poor judgment.
When I was in the car, Marcus focused on the road, stayed within speed limits and reacted calmly to unexpected situations. I wanted him to continue doing this and become a safe driver. So instead of just handing over the keys, I set boundaries for him and evaluated his driving performance until I was confident he could maintain these good habits when alone. Initially, I insisted that an adult had to be in the car with him. As I closely monitored my son’s progress as a driver, here is what I learned:
New drivers are vulnerable to distractions. During the time we were discussing Marcus’ request to drive on his own, he found himself in an accident as a passenger. His recently licensed friend had become distracted and ran into a building. Fortunately, no one was injured — unlike the tragedy I’d handled as a claims adjuster where a teen lost control of his car and crashed into a tree, killing himself and one of his three passengers. The car’s bumper sticker broke my heart: “Are We Having Fun Yet?”
The distraction of having friends in the car makes it difficult for teens to focus on driving — especially inexperienced teens. Marcus and I agreed to limit his distractions, such as eating, listening to music using headphones or earbuds (which is illegal in some states), or even fidgeting with the radio. He was allowed only one passenger, and he could not use a cellphone under any circumstance. If he needed to call or text someone, he had to pull off the road and park.
Teens may test the rules. For the first three months of Marcus’ driving, he and I shared the morning commute. Marcus drove to school. Then I took the wheel and continued to work. Before long, I let him go on short errands by himself and to football practice, gradually increasing the time he drove alone. A year after getting his license, while driving to his summer job, he received a speeding ticket.
Speeding is the most common accident factor in my claims. I handled one drag-racing case in which a teen hit a pedestrian at 70 mph. Even speeding a short distance can be deadly. A pizza delivery driver wept when he told me, “I wasn’t going that fast,” as he described striking a child who’d darted in front of him.
Obeying the rules of the road — driving the speed limit (or slower if conditions dictate), wearing a seat belt, not drinking or doing drugs, and not texting (in our state) — isn’t simply expected; it’s the law. Marcus knew those were zero-tolerance issues for our family. When he didn’t follow the law, he lost his driving privileges. In addition, home rules — such as reporting incidents with the car — carried just as much weight
When Marcus tested the rules, I withheld the car keys. He also had to pay for his ticket and subsequent traffic school. He realized that not obeying the law had a personal cost.
Inexperience hampers judgment. While visiting out-of-town relatives, Marcus was offered the use of their car. During a rainstorm, he lost control when braking. The car skidded across two lanes of oncoming traffic, hopped a curb and crashed into a brick wall. Fortunately, he was OK.
Teens don’t have the experience to handle, or even recognize, the danger in some situations. My son didn’t realize the car was hydroplaning, and so he didn’t know that braking would throw him into an uncontrolled skid. Afterward, I restricted him to driving familiar, family vehicles. I also limited his driving during inclement weather. And I continued to give feedback and encouragement as he became an independent driver
Just because a teen has a driver’s license doesn’t mean he is prepared to handle the responsibility of driving. Allowing Marcus to take steps toward independence helped him not only become a safer driver, but also helped him understand that driving is a privilege, not a right.