Driving and riding with other young people in cars is the leading killer of our kids. Yet, too many parents regard driver education as little more than a pesky state requirement to be disposed of as quickly and painlessly as possible.
How else does one explain the fact that, in my 30-plus years of training more than 70,000 teens, a mere handful of parents (not even a quarter of 1 percent) has chosen to meet with me personally to ask me how I intend to train their kids?
If you brought your 15-year-old to me to learn how to handle dynamite, you’d be in my face and want to know precisely how I intended to do that. Of course you would! Handling dynamite is dangerous business.
We know that driving is even more dangerous and yet sports, cheerleading, dance practice and other activities routinely trump drivers education in the parental pecking order. It’s remarkable how few parents take seriously this literal matter of life and death for their kids. Why?
For one thing we tend to trivialize the driving task. It’s what we do. What’s the big deal? The big deal is that roughly 30,000 of us — about 5,000 of which are teens — will die this year in car crashes and close to 3 million will be seriously injured. Driving becomes so routine that we lose sight of how dangerous it really is, especially for our young people. It’s a thinking task but we stop thinking about it.
Do the kids pick up on this? Of course they do. We all know that kids think they’re immortal anyway so why do we further reinforce that mind set by understating the seriousness of this life-threatening activity?
Studies show that kids with close parental supervision can be as much as 80 percent less likely to be involved in a serious crash. Parental supervision means controlling the keys, restricting hours of driving and knowing when and with whom our kids are riding. It means sticking with the graduated licensing rules many states now have in place. It means setting good examples.
For 15 years, they watch us ignore speed limits and stop signs, tail gate, drive distracted and get angry behind the wheel and then we tell them they are expected to “drive like adults.”
Too many of our students tell us mom or dad said they can get away with five or 10 miles over the speed limit. Too many tell us that, when they point out some bad driving behavior on the part of a parent, the parent will most likely laugh it off and continue driving as usual. These are strong messages which do not go unnoticed.
There are three principal reasons why kids get involved in car crashes:
The first is inexperience. Driving is like a dangerous job, when we first do it we’re prone to mishaps. It’s a learned task and, as with any activity requiring coordination and concentration (sports are a good example), the more we train the better our skills become. Practice with your kids . . . a lot!
The second is risk-taking. One of the most frustrating parts of the instructor job is trying to convince the kids to avoid risky in-car behavior when we know that many will do it anyway. Set rules and limits and, if the rules are not respected, take away the keys!
The third reason is alcohol and other drug use by teens in and around cars. This is a tragic byproduct of a much larger problem and frankly, although we try very hard, driver education can only provide the best advice available and hope for the best.
Driver education tries to teach new drivers the skills and attitudes they need to avoid making mistakes, but that’s just part of it. Parents must take an interested and active role right from the start.
Kids begin processing information from the time of first conscious thought. They watch the way we drive and they will surely imitate our behavior. The examples we provide as adults set the tone for all that follows including, not just the physical skills needed for driving, but the vital intangibles such as attitude and social skills.
There is a great deal of difference between good drivers and, well, those of us who merely know how to drive. Which do you want your kids to be?
This is not about how to drive. This is about staying alive!