Preparing Teens to Take the Driver's Wheel

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1968 Dodge Charger R/T Avatar - Perspective IIIIn August my son will be 16 and the proud new owner of a driver’s permit. Like any teenage closing in on this rite of passage, he is anticipatory of the moment that he can slide behind the wheel of a car and gain that step to adult independence. He often asks if he can drive now, in a parking lot, down the street, just to get some practice. During Driver’s Ed class in school he studied that NJ Driver’s Handbook so much it was dog eared and dirty, worn down by the attention he gave it until he knew the contents inside and out.

Turning my son loose onto the busy streets is a harrowing thought. Do I trust him? Yes. Do I see him clearly as a teenage boy who will revel in this new found freedom and stretch the rules more than he should? Yes. Do we speak to him ad nauseum about driver safety and the responsibility of driving? Yes. Is it enough? Never.

He will not be an isolated individual on the road, but one of many moving in rapid distraction from one place to the next. The potential for disaster is tremendous and it just takes one inattentive moment. Each and every day there are news reports of another auto accident that claims a life. In the past two months alone, our community has lost two teenage boys in separate, unrelated auto accidents. Parents are devastated, friends are grieving and a community mourns the loss of these two young men. Gifted athletes, academic achievers, good young men with their lives open before them. Unfulfilled. In one of these accidents another driver was killed: A man with a young family and now that family is broken, grieving and at a loss to understand why.

Despite these recent losses -- and teenagers lost in previous years, one year alone our community lost five teens to road accidents -- young adults behind the wheel continue to believe they are immortal and that these horrible things will not happen to them. It will always be someone else. Until it is not.

What these young invincible spirits do not realize is that one moment is all it takes to destroy multiple lives. One moment that reverberates throughout the years in loss, pain, heartache and hardship.

I realize there are just as many adults on the road that are reckless and flout laws while behind the wheel, putting others at risk. But NJ statistics claim that young drivers are the majority of car accidents. I just ponder on what efforts are required to deliver the message of safety and responsibility as a driver to the young people of our community, and beyond, in such a manner that whenever they turn the key in the ignition, they think, for a few seconds, on what it might be like to have the police knock on their parents door and deliver the news of a tragic accident.

I recall with crystal clarity the words of my high school driving instructor. After having us, his three captive students, perform a safety check on the school’s student driver car, he stood back and told us to take a good hard look at each other. We did, somewhat quizzically, and then looked back to him. He told us to remember each other’s faces because statistics said one of us will be dead from a car accident within five years. And that is how we started our first day of on the road training. I have never forgotten that moment.

Today, in our over-sensitive society, if a teacher spoke to students in such a way, parents would complain that they were being too harsh. If schools showed videos and imagery of accidents, it would be deemed too severe for student viewing by a portion of parents. Perhaps a little harshness and severity when it comes to statistics of driving teenagers is necessary. If showing them the aftermath of such accidents will help prevent just one more, it would be worth it. I know that as a parent I remind my son of the dangers of driving regularly, enough to keep it in the forefront of his mind to counter balance the excitement of getting behind that wheel. Because it is our job as parents to remind them of the laws, the dangers and the devastation that can come from ignoring those laws.

How then, do we parents prepare our sons and daughters to take to the roads with safety and responsibility uppermost in their minds when they turn the key and press foot to peddle? What does it take to remind out teens that a vehicle can be a weapon in a moment of inattention and carelessness? What does it take to remind them that one moment can change lives forever?

The answer to this question continues to elude me as I see drivers ignore posted speed limits, teenagers texting and talking on their cell phones, adults doing the same. How can we expect our children to respect the laws when we ourselves decide they do not apply to us when we speed, talk on cell phones while driving and disregard other critical rules of the road?

Photo Credit: 1968_dodge_charger.

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