Save young drivers from a crash course



Fifteen years, nine months. For Maryland parents, it's one of those milestone events. Just 189 months after you changed that first dirty diaper, your hormonally hopped-up teenager becomes eligible for a learner's permit.

And you have all of six months to turn this child into something other than the worst menace on the state's roads.

Yes, as a parent you have every right to delay that process should you believe your teen is ill-prepared for the responsibilities. But you'll also have to live with the consequences of that decision. Trust me, you won't want to go through that.

So three months shy of your kid turning 16, you'll likely do what I did two years ago: take your teen to the MVA office and get the permit on first day of eligibility. And with more than a little trepidation, you'll turn over the keys and brace yourself.

The prospect of handing over the keys and sitting in the passenger seat forces a parent to think about driving in a whole new light. Suddenly you're reminded that it's not all automatic - that the reflexes and thought processes that go into driving have to be acquired through a process of trial and hopefully uncatastrophic error.

And unless you're a professional driving instructor or a raging egotist, you realize how profoundly ill-prepared you are for this responsibility.

My experience with my son actually went very well. We didn't clash. He took to driving with a good mixture of caution and confidence. I think we came through the six months he held his learner's permit liking each other better than before. He earned his license on his first try and hasn't wrecked any cars - so far.

But I still wish I had a resource like Timothy C. Smith's book Crashproof Your Kids before I embarked on that adventure. Unfortunately, he didn't get around to publishing it until last year, when Owen already had his license and was no longer compelled to listen to Dad. There's a lot in this book I wish I had said when he was still a captive audience.

Smith, a certified driving instructor and licensed race car driver from the Chicago suburbs, came to Maryland recently to conduct a session for Maryland driving teachers sponsored by the Motor Vehicle Administration.

A parent of three, Smith told the instructors he was prompted to begin writing his book when five teenagers were killed in three separate crashes - he avoids the word accident - near his home in a six-month period when his oldest daughter was turning 14.

He began researching the topic of driver training extensively and took race car driving and defensive-driver courses to hone his skills for the challenge that would come with his daughter's learner's permit.

With his daughter as his suffering lab rat, Smith began to devise what he calls his "Crashproof Plan" for parents. It's a step-by-step series of practice sessions in which parents present teens with escalating challenges similar to those they will encounter on the road.

The book offers plenty of checklists - but that's not what distinguishes it. Smith approaches the topic with self-deprecating humor, a practical understanding of the teenage mind and a wealth of common sense. While I hate to admit it, I learned things about driving I never knew or had long forgotten.

The fellow driving instructors he spoke to were some of his biggest fans.

"This is the best book I've found for teaching kids to drive," said Tom Pinckney, a teacher with I Drive Smart in Montgomery County, a driver education school. "I tell every parent about the book. I lost a child behind the wheel."

Smith believes that in many cases parents teach their children all the wrong lessons. He notes that children of parents with a history of racking up tickets are more likely to commit moving violations than kids whose parents have clean records. "Many parents you would hate to have as role models for their kids," he said.

Smith advises parents of teenagers to own up to their own faults as drivers and to work on correcting them - preferably in the years leading up to the learner's permit experience. When the oldest kid turns 12 is a good time for parents to take an inward look at their own driving behavior and make changes, he says.

And as difficult as it may be, he urges parents to make a deal with their kids under which they agree not to nag or scream at their teens while they struggle to learn to drive. In return, the teens must agree to accept constructive criticism and avoid defensiveness. He emphasizes the importance of praise and suggests that parents occasionally let the teenager reverse roles and critique their driving.

Smith says some parents are afraid to drive with their children on roads outside the comfort zone of their own neighborhoods when they're learning. Even if the prospect scares parents half to death, he says, they need to take their child out on the interstates and learn to deal with the madness.

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