Teaching daughter to stay safe in the car

Family Matters

May 30, 2004|By Susan Reimer

When my daughter was completing her drivers' education course, I asked if the instructors had taught the students to change a tire or recognize trouble under the hood.

She said, yes, and I said, good.

"Now forget everything you learned because I never want you to use any of that stuff," I said.

"If a tire blows or the engine smokes, I want you to get safely to the side of the road, lock your doors, turn on your flashers and call your Daddy, your brother, your Uncle Steve or the police.

"What I don't want is you getting picked off by a speeding car while trying to change a tire or getting carried off by a bad guy posing as a good Samaritan.

"Got it?"

Not a very empowering message for a young woman, I confess. And Kristin Backstrom might agree, except that it was the sight of a young woman stranded by the side of the road and standing outside her car that inspired her to found Safe Smart Women.

It is a nonprofit based in Silver Spring and dedicated to making sure this generation of increasingly mobile and increasingly independent young women are, well, safe and smart on the highway.

"Young women should always feel comfortable locking the door and calling," says Backstrom in a generous attempt to make me feel less foolish about my instructions to my daughter.

"But if the battery on your cell phone is dead, what are you going to do? I liken it to a kitchen fire. It is great to call the fire department, but it would be good to know where the fire extinguisher is, too."

Safe Smart Women is in its infancy but Backstrom and partner Anne Sessions are working to partner with high schools, drivers' education schools and college orientation programs in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania. In addition, there are public car clinics conducted with financial sponsor Carmax.

The goal is to encourage young women to get their hands dirty in the name of preventive car care, but also to be cautiously aware of the dangers in a world they increasingly navigate alone or with other young women.

"I have this sense of exasperation," says Backstrom. "We have produced a generation of young women unaware of their vulnerabilities. And, as parents, we have a false confidence about how our children are going to respond to this freedom."

Parents continue to bear significant responsibility for the education of their young drivers long after drivers' ed is over. The wallet-sized tip sheets Safe Smart Women produces includes this advice:

* Make sure your daughter has an emergency cell phone in the car with these numbers pre-programmed: emergency help, home, parent work and cell numbers, insurance and doctor. (And make sure there is a charger in the car.)

* Young women are more vulnerable than young men in a crash because of their generally smaller physical size, lighter bone structure and muscle mass. To improve safety, adjust the driver's seat to at least 10 inches between the steering wheel and your daughter's chest. (Choose a car for her with all the latest safety features. Or have that old clunker retrofitted. How will you feel if something happens because you didn't spend that money?)

* Each month, help your daughter check her car to make sure it is safe for her use, including tire pressure, fluid levels, emergency supplies and clean headlights.

* And, perhaps most important, discuss safety strategies in the event of a car crash, breakdown and threatening or aggressive situations.

The personal safety tips offered by Safe Smart Women are ones adults should know, too:

* Don't accessorize your car with "girl" stuff like personalized plates or bumper stickers that would indicate the car is owned or driven by a woman.

* Don't ever place materials in the trunk of a car and then leave the car to do more shopping. Once items are placed in the trunk, drive elsewhere.

* When stopped at a light or in traffic, keep your car in gear and leave a half car length between you and the car in front. If threatened, honk your horn and drive away as soon as safely possible.

* If someone is following you, DO NOT drive home or pull over. Dial *77 on your cell phone to alert the nearest police barracks. Drive to the nearest gas station, police station, fire station or well-lit building and honk your horn.

These are precautions against pretty scary stuff. We don't like to think about how vulnerable our daughters or we might be. But it is not new stuff. Backstrom likes to quote from a speech Elizabeth Cady Stanton made before Congress in 1892.

"The talk of sheltering woman from the fierce storms of life is the sheerest mockery for they beat on her from every point of the compass, just as they do on man, and with more fatal results, for he has been trained to protect himself, to resist, to conquer. Such are the facts in human experience ... man and woman ... each soul must depend wholly on itself."

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