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Turning Teens Into Responsible Drivers

Safe Driving Tips You Can Teach to Teens

by Janet Simons

Recently, parents of teenagers have been approaching each day's news with the cold fear that they'll find yet another story about a teenage driving fatality.

One such story was about Alejandro Melendez, 17, of Commerce City, Colorado who was drag racing down Interstate 25 on Feb. 27 when his 1996 Mitsubishi Eclipse spun out of control and rolled. Melendez was thrown from the car, and then run over. His was the third drag-racing death in the metro area since October.

In response to stories of such horrible accidents, Colorado legislature has been wrestling with various measures to prevent teen fatalities. The real power is in the hands of parents, who can do a lot more than hope and pray that their child won't be next.

Parents who know what's going on in their teens' lives and actively and effectively monitor their behavior can significantly increase their children's odds of survival.

"Perhaps we do need more laws to govern drivers," says psychologist Charles Fay of Denver's Love and Logic Institute. "But you can't legislate common sense. It's up to parents to raise responsible kids from the start."

The process should begin in early childhood, when children need to learn to make choices and live with their consequences, Fay says.

"I remember talking to a school superintendent who had lost two teenage daughters in one accident," Fay said. "He was reflecting on what kind of parent he had been, and he said he hadn't let the girls make enough decisions when they were little."

To most adults, drag racing exemplifies a risky and irresponsible choice. But inexperienced teens aren't good at assessing risk. That's the focus of a program being developed by the National Institutes of Health to help parents limit the riskiest aspects of driving until teens have time to develop their skills.

The Checkpoints program, which is being tested in Maryland and Connecticut, teaches parents how to limit their children's driving in bad weather, at night, with teen passengers and on high-speed roads. If tests show that the program prevents teen driving fatalities, it might be expanded nationally.

Jessica Hartos helped develop Checkpoints as a researcher at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Hartos now is an assistant professor in the department of health behavior and administration at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

"We initially found that parents didn't want to limit their child's driving, because they thought it showed a lack of trust," Hartos said. "But that's not the point. Parents need to realize that even good, responsible kids start out as inexperienced drivers.

"This program encourages parents to let teens gain as much experience as possible under low-risk conditions before allowing them to go out under higher-risk conditions."

"It's not about trust. It's about safety."

When we asked readers to share their methods for turning teens into safe drivers, they responded with passion and enthusiasm. We were able to use only a small portion of the responses we received. Here are some of the most creative suggestions:

Where to teach driving

Empty parking lots were the venue of choice for teaching children the rudiments of handling a car. Several parents suggested going back to the parking lot on an icy and snowy day to teach the teen how to control a skid.

* For their first few times behind the wheel, I take teen drivers to Fairmount Cemetery, where the speed limit is 20 mph, and tell them that if they exceed that, the session will be over. There are places to practice backing up, head-in and parallel parking, stop signs and dealing with an occasional oncoming driver. As the fledgling driver is practicing staying on the right side of the street and making right and left turns, I point out that we are passing the final resting places of those who drove too fast or recklessly.

Cindy Crockett, Centennial

* I took them to a housing development under construction that had paved roads, houses and fireplugs, but few cars. This gave them practical experience in a real driving environment.

Patrick Kelley, Aurora

Rules of the road

The most common rule laid down by readers was a ban on teen passengers for the first six months. Few mentioned a requirement that teens buckle their seat belts, although Colorado law-enforcement officials say that of the 106 drivers and passengers from ages 16 to 20 who died in traffic crashes in 2002, 82, or 77 percent, were not buckled up.

* We are strict about knowing in whose cars our kids will be passengers, the driver's record, experience, training and the vehicle driven. Recently, my freshman son and two of his friends were planning to ride home from sports practice with a 16-year-old driver. I said no because the route was on Parker Road during rush hour, it would be after dark, there would be at least four teens in the car and a snowstorm was expected. Plus, I didn't know the teen driver and his record, just that he's 16 and a new driver. It didn't make me the most popular mom of the week, but I drove down to pick up my son and his two friends.

Maureen Brothers, Denver

* Driving privileges are suspended unless the teen maintains at least a "B" average and receives no moving violations. No cell phones while driving. No eating while driving. Obey curfews.

Paul Niekelski, Louisville

* We told our three teenagers that the driver is responsible for control of the car and for the behavior of everyone in it. If a passenger does something stupid (water balloons, gang signs, mooning, out-of-control conduct), it is the driver's responsibility to control or defuse the situation, or pull over and let the culprit out.

Martha Clark, Denver

Teaching methods

Colorado requires teens on a learner's permit to log 50 hours of driving with a parent or a licensed driving instructor to qualify for a driver's license. Here's how some readers used those hours.

* For several months before and after children get a learner's permit, the adult driver should randomly ask the child what the speed limit is wherever they are traveling. While the adult is driving, block the speedometer from view and ask the child to guess what speed the car is traveling.

Elaine Blainey, Westminster

* Our son is not allowed to drive anywhere on his own until we clear him for those conditions. First we cleared him on drives across town, then driving on (U.S.) 36 and in Boulder, then driving in ice and snow. He has practiced driving in downtown Denver and on Interstate 70 in heavy traffic, but we have not yet cleared him to tackle those alone.

Barbara Holub, Louisville

* My husband works at Craig and Swedish hospitals and sees the worst results from car accidents. Our teens have done community-service work at the hospitals, where they learned a respect for automobiles and how powerful they are. Seeing teens who have sustained lifelong injuries in car accidents made a big impression.

Maureen Brothers, Denver

* Besides being aware of their surroundings, I taught my two sons to always plan on other drivers' doing the wrong thing. If they don't, there is no problem; if they do, you're ahead of the game.

John Evans, Wheat Ridge

* Have the teen drive every possible time he gets into the car with you or your spouse. We had our son drive to and from Eagle for breakfast one Sunday on I-70. Later we did trips during heavier traffic periods. Take them downtown, into neighborhoods, into other towns, on rural roads and mountain roads. Have them drive in snow, rain, wind, gravel and mud.

Peter Jasper, Golden

* Part of it is that they had newspaper routes. They learned to ride their bikes in traffic, observe rules and drive defensively.

Rose Brinks, Laporte

* I took my teenage daughter to a junkyard when she first received her learner's permit. We looked at all the twisted, smashed, broken automobiles that had been in serious accidents. She had assumed the steel fortress would protect her under any circumstances. It sounds crude, but seeing bloodstains, particularly around the driver area, made a major impact. It made her very, very cautious, and she drives that way today, many years later.

Bob Stark, Denver

Insurance, money matters

"The best way to kill your teenager is to make driving free," says Charles Fay. "Kids are much more afraid of financial loss than they are of death."

* The approach my husband and I took with driving was that it is not a right but a privilege coupled with great responsibility. Our daughters were told from the beginning that they would have to pay their own car insurance.

Norma Mummert, Arvada

* We lent each of our sons the money to buy a used car. Since both had part-time jobs, we asked for small payments each month until the loans were down to $500. If they drove for one year, no tickets, no accidents and no complaints from neighbors or school, we would consider the loan fully paid. Both earned the $500.

Joyce Reynolds, Denver

* We required that our kids have the amount of our insurance deductible in a savings account prior to driving one of our cars alone. We believed they needed to understand that driving is a commitment to responsibility and can be revoked by the parent.

Mike Guthrie, Littleton

Parent involvement

Although these readers seem to be talking about driving, what they're really talking about is their responsibility to put limits on their children and be involved in their lives.

* If they ever felt they couldn't drive safely home - mainly due to weather or time or exhaustion (both were in sports at the high school) - they just had to call and we would come and get them.

Jan Roman, Fraser

* My wife and I taught eight teenagers how to drive. We always discussed accidents when we saw one or read about one and commented on unsafe driving habits if we observed them.

Jim Delaney, Denver

(Reprinted with permission of the Rocky Mountain News)