Teens need more time to learn to drive

March 08, 1998|By Susan Reimer

MATTHEW IS the smartest kid I have ever met, and I would think that about him even if he were not the first-born of my husband's best friend.

He will graduate from college this spring with plenty of A's, and he is going to graduate school to study how the brain functions. My hope is that he works really fast so he can tell me how to get the two young brains I am in charge of to function.

Anyway, I remember when Matthew learned to drive. Within hours of obtaining his license, Matt grazed a brick wall with his car.

Matt was alone, undistracted by a carload of friends.

Matt was driving in daylight and in perfect weather.

Matt was on his way to church.

The smartest kid I will ever know hit a brick wall in broad daylight in perfect weather while pulling into a church parking lot.

There is only one conclusion a reasonable person can reach:

If Matt couldn't do it, it can't be done.

So you can probably guess how I feel about legislation before the Maryland General Assembly that would require teens to receive more supervised on-the-road experience and wait longer than they do now to earn a full license. Traffic violations incurred during this process would send them back to square one.

"Teen-agers have all the physical tools -- the vision, the reflexes -- to be the best drivers on the road, but they stink. They are the worst," says Lon Anderson, lobbyist for the American Automobile Association in the Washington metropolitan area.

A combination of immaturity and inexperience makes kids bad drivers, and it is a deadly combination: Motor vehicle accidents are the leading killer of 16- to 19-year-olds.

Surveys by the automobile industry and highway safety experts show teens are more likely to take risks and less likely to use safety belts. They are more likely to underestimate the dangers of hazardous situations and are less able to cope with those dangers.

Teens are more likely than older drivers to speed, to run red lights, to make illegal turns and tailgate. They also perceive that they have less to lose by engaging in reckless behavior and more to gain in the way of peer approval.

In addition, teens drive older, smaller cars, and those cars are often chock-full of friends.

Sixteen-year-olds have an accident rate nine times that of the rest of the driving population, and studies have shown that driver's education courses do not reduce this alarming statistic.

In fact, there is a school of thought that driver's ed may actually result in more accidents because it contributes to the overconfidence of both the teens and the parents who hand them the car keys. The kids feel empowered to drive less safely, parents tend to spend less time practicing with them and are more likely to let them drive at night and in poor weather.

In fact, the only thing we have learned from driver's education is that safety cannot be learned in a classroom. The only answer is more hours behind the wheel, and the only way to do that -- because anything else would be too expensive -- is to ask parents to spend more time teaching their teens to drive.

That is perhaps the best provision of the legislation in front of the General Assembly now. The proposal not only delays the acquisition of a permanent license, but requires log books that prove a teen-ager has spent a minimum of 40 supervised hours behind the wheel, 10 of them at night.

"Forty hours is a good start," says Anderson.

But it is only a start. Safety experts estimate that it takes 5,000 miles of driving experience to become an average driver. At 40 mph, that's 125 hours of supervised driving. Other, more conservative estimates say that it takes five years before a new driver drives as well as all drivers.

Wherever you set the bar, it is clearly higher than the two weeks of classroom teaching and six hours of on-the-road experience that most driver's ed courses provide.

"Most teens who crash are not drunk. They are inexperienced," Del. Adrienne Mandel said at a news conference last week. A member of the task force that drafted the bill, the Montgomery County Democrat is its chief sponsor in the House.

"This bill provides practice time and parental supervision," said Anne S. Ferro, head of the Motor Vehicle Administration. "That's why we support it."

National surveys by AAA show that delaying full licensure and increasing hours of supervised on-the-road experience have enormous public support. It is hard to imagine who could be opposed.

"We are on the side of the angels with this one," says Anderson.

But I suspect that support comes from people who do not believe they will be the ones spending 40 hours in the passenger seat of their automobile, pumping furiously at an imaginary brake.

Mandel actually fears it will be parents who will oppose the law changes because of the 10 p.m. curfew on provisional licenses or the 40 hours of required driving time.

If kids view the driver's license as their ticket to freedom, parents do, too. No more sports carpools. No more ferrying kids to the mall or movies. No more post-party taxi service hours after Mom or Dad might rather be asleep for the night. The people who have the highest personal stake in the driving skill of their children are thinking about putting their feet up at exactly the wrong time.

"When asked to name the biggest threat to their teen-agers, parents invariably name drugs or AIDS," says Anderson. "They rate car crashes No. 8.

"If parents understood the magnitude of the problem -- that if their child dies it will most likely be in a car crash -- their objections would melt away."

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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