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Back to School Teenage Driving

By KEVIN A. WILSON AutoWeek | Published 09/04/06, 8:10 am ET

Since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, about 2600 American troops have been killed in combat and war-related incidents. The count is well-known and updated regularly in news reports. Did you know during the same 41-month period, more than 22,000 teenagers, ages 15 to 19, died in traffic accidents on U.S. roads?

''Think about those deaths on the roads for a moment," says Phil Berardelli, author of Safe Young Drivers. "A highway fatality is as violent, bloody and gruesome as anything in warfare. It causes family members to grieve just as deeply as those of combat casualties; the lives cut short are just as tragically young, or younger."

Berardelli uses the statistical comparison when called upon to speak in public on the subject. It's not an exact comparison—there are far more teen drivers than there are soldiers deployed in Iraq. But the dismal fact is America watches many more young people die in traffic accidents than it does in military service, and yet there's very little political and public activity related to stemming these deaths.

"We just accept the fact that somewhere between 5000 and 6000 kids will die on our roads this year and another 300,000 will be seriously injured. And it's just not acceptable," says Ron Langford, who created the MasterDrive driver-education program in Colorado after the death of his own 16-year-old daughter in a traffic accident.

Fortunately, Langford is not the only one thinking this way. The time is ripe for car enthusiasts—who have long bemoaned the state of driver education in America—to contribute to an evolving effort to address the problem. The past decade has seen rising interest in how we teach teens to drive and license them to do so. On one hand, states—with the encouragement of AAA, the insurance industry and the federal government—have implemented Graduated Driver Licensing programs. Generally speaking, GDL programs demand more hours of on-the-road training with a parent or guardian in the car during an extended learner's permit period. GDLs then put restrictions on the hours during which newly licensed drivers can be on the road and how many teen passengers they can have with them and so on.

"Graduated licensing works," asserts Ann Fleming, senior vp for communications at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Indeed, teen fatality rates typically fall 20 percent to 25 percent in the period following a state's enactment of GDL. "In state after state the fatality rates have decreased," Fleming said. "Because [GDL] introduces teens to driving over an extended period, and it protects them from the high-risk situations until they have more experience—late night, numbers of passengers. We have seen a significant lowering of crash risk."

Right now 44 states and the District of Columbia have GDL laws—and by AAA's count, they all have at least some elements of the recommended array of restrictions on age, driving experience, curfews and other limitations. But not one has an "optimal" program as defined by NHTSA, AAA and IIHS, the leading advocates for such programs (to see how your state measures up, check out www.nhtsa.gov).

Critics, however, note GDL lowers fatalities by decreasing the numbers of teens on the road, not necessarily by improving their ability as drivers.

"Let's give IIHS and its campaign for GDL credit for slowing down the push to license 16-year-olds," says David Thompson of the Florida-headquartered New Driver Car Control Clinic, which offers programs in 14 states. "But what does that really do? It puts a barrier in the way"—a financial or regulatory wall to leap over—and that cuts the numbers of drivers in the youngest age cohort. "That's not a small accomplishment," says Berardelli. "Kids are alive who would have been dead doing it the old way. But for it to work best, it really needs parents to step up."

Many parents seem to recognize GDL isn't the be-all and end-all (those fatality rates are still too high), which is why the rise of GDL programs has also seen a parallel proliferation of programs that aim to expose teens to advanced driving skills such as emergency lane-change maneuvers, skid recovery and how to make best use of antilock brakes, traction control and other technologies. Talk to those leading these programs and you find a lot of passion and a lot of varied approaches to how to teach these skills, though. America is recognizing a problem, and a lot of people are trying to do something about it, but we haven't agreed on the same answer.

"This is an exciting time in driver education circles," asserts Bill Van Tassel, manager of driver training operations for the national AAA. "There's a lot of focus on the subject. One good question is whether the goal should be to make us into good driving citizens for life, or is the goal to keep them safe for that first six months or 1000 miles?"

Why not both? "You probably want both," says Van Tassel, "but it makes a difference in how you set priorities."

We've been arguing priorities for a long time now. Thompson, Langford and many others who teach advanced skills maintain the IIHS's former leader, Brian O'Neill, was such a staunch opponent of driver education—saying that skills-training programs did not work to improve teen safety and citing numerous studies to support his assertion—that he almost single-handedly set progress back a decade or more.

Counters the IIHS's Fleming: "We're not anti-driver education; it may be a good thing to teach these skills. It just shouldn't be confused with making teens safer. Generally speaking, it's not an issue of skills; the risk has to do with attitudes. You can teach them skid control all day and it won't affect the teenager's sense of... invulnerability."

A recent study by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHoP), sponsored by State Farm Insurance, concluded that the first six-month period of licensure is the most dangerous time for any driver, and the crash risk remains twice as high as that for adult drivers until age 25. This is also, perhaps not coincidentally, the age at which scientists now say a human brain is fully developed and capable of making mature decisions.

Issues of decision-making are compounded for teens diagnosed with ADHD, but the expert recommendations for parents of such teens in the article on page 23 have wider applicability. With the exception of the advice about managing medication, the rest can apply to any teen.

CHoP convened an international expert panel that recommended four initiatives for action: first, to strengthen Graduated Driver Licensing in all states; second, to stress training to optimize the two-second sequence just prior to a crash with improved hazard detection and response skills among novice drivers; third, tools to enhance the teen-parent relationship; and fourth, it insists on incorporating the teen perspective to make sure intervention measures will "make sense" to teens.

Taken together, these four points suggest that, rather than the either/or arguments that tend to develop when discussing driver training, there may be a both/and answer that would serve us all. Former NHTSA administrator Dr. Ricardo Martinez, a specialist in emergency and trauma medicine, says GDL and issues of high-skills training "help bring it home to the supper table." According to Martinez, "A driver's license is something we pass an exam for once and then we're assumed competent for life. Just look how much technology has changed recently, with ABS and traction control and so on. Somehow a driver needs to understand how his car works. What's emerging is a sense that we might need more lifelong learning or at least periodic recertification, like we expect of pilots or railroad engineers."

We could start with more extensive training before a teen gets that first license, perhaps something like Langford's MasterDrive program or any one of a number of other schools listed in this issue. Langford says the typical commercial driver school's objective is to train students to meet a lowest-common-denominator standard: the ability to pass the state licensing exam, which isn't very demanding. In the words of Florida's Thompson: "The natives are eating the coconuts, but the coconuts have no nutritional value."

Passing the exam may be the top concern of teens and parents. "But that's not our objective," says Langford. "We want the kid who graduates from our school to be as well-prepared, as competent and confident as we can make him or her. Driving is a psychomotor skill. The brain doesn't learn it by talking about it; you have to do it, repeatedly."

That's why Langford's program—offered in Denver and Colorado Springs, Colorado, and in Orange County, California—includes 52 hours of behind-the-wheel training.

In other areas, parents are latching onto one-day or half-day programs—either free or for nominal fees, thanks to sponsorship by car manufacturers and tiremakers—that give teens at least a taste of the advanced skills to supplement what they get through the state-certified schools, which those under 18 typically must attend before being allowed to take the exam.

One such free program operates under the rubric of Street Survival, a South Carolina-based driving school. The touring program is operated in conjunction with the BMW Car Club of America and sponsored by The Tire Rack, where vice president Matt Edmonds is excited by an initiative to expand by working with other car clubs. He convened a meeting of the BMW CCA, SCCA and the clubs for Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and Alfa Romeo owners, all of which have advanced training programs for their members.

"This will give us the opportunity to do many more schools at the same time all over the country," says Edmonds. "All you need to run a program is a moderator and people trained and ready to ride in the cars and instruct." Unlike some other similar programs, such as Driver's Edge, this one has the students drive their own cars, so logistics are easier.

On another front, NHTSA has undertaken a study of the Las Vegas-based Driver's Edge program to evaluate its effectiveness in crash reduction, data the school has been accumulating for years. In a Florida study, Thompson's program saw a 77 percent reduction in crashes. In Colorado, Langford claims 25 percent to 55 percent improvement for graduates of MasterDrive. But other studies show no real gain after six months—the data are ambiguous. AAA's Van Tassel says the auto club's official stance is to hold back, neither supporting nor opposing such skills-focused training. Van Tassel himself is a graduate of the Bob Bondurant school, a racer in SCCA club racing and Solo competition, so you might assume that made him one of "us," a believer in the value of advanced driver training. He is not yet convinced.

"What if," he asks, "there's no net gain? What if you give people the skills, but you also make them more confident, perhaps more confident than their actual skills warrant? We just haven't seen the evidence. We're really interested in seeing what the NHTSA study with Driver's Edge turns up, and there are some others to watch."

So the Holy Grail for the leaders of these programs seems to be to accumulate a database that would prove to the safety community such programs do work, if not to reduce teen fatalities in that first six months, then in the sense of creating good drivers for life.

"What we really need," says Kjell Kallman of the Jim Russell Racing School, which runs teen programs in conjunction with Yokohama Tire and Discount Tire, "is a consortium of some kind. We need to come together and agree on what such a program should entail, set a code of ethics and a curriculum. Then we can accumulate the database that will prove to insurers these programs have merit. And if you can convince them it is worth offering a discount, you'll really drive some change."

On the following pages you will read much more about teens and driving, how people can work as citizens to improve the state of driver education in America, and how parents can help their own teens survive this perilous period. Whether you have a teen of your own or not, you don't want to sit back at this critical juncture—these are the people who will be driving in the lane next to you for many years to come.

Getting started with your teen
We contacted numerous advanced driving-skills programs for teens in the course of preparing these articles. Below is a list of websites where parents can find out more about the programs available-some are national touring programs, others are more regional in nature. This list does not purport to be comprehensive, and inclusion should not be construed as an endorsement by this magazine, but parents interested in finding programs for their own teens could get started here.


For more in-depth studies of teen driver-education issues, see the following websites. Most have search functions and entering the terms teen, teen driver or driver education will turn up a wealth of information.



Parents seeking materials to use in teaching their own teens about driving will find plenty of books and DVD/video programs available. Start with AAA's Teaching Your Teen to Drive, a package containing a workbook for the teen and a "teacher's guide" for the parent, plus a DVD to guide both parents and teenagers through the process. Check your state's AAA website for availability; generally, local offices either have or can obtain the materials for you, or you can order it online from your state's AAA website.

Also see the books by authors Phil Beradelli, Safe Young Drivers, and Ken Zuber, Joyriding.

Also find the interactive computer DVD Driver-ZED (Zero Errors Driving), available through AAA nationally at the AAA Foundation website and through state AAA affiliates. We've reviewed earlier versions, but not until the latest, which is version 3.0, did it seem worthwhile. No computer program or game replaces at-the-wheel experience, but this one does a good job of explaining situations young drivers will encounter on the road and can be a real aid to discussion between parents and teens. It won't help teens develop psychomotor skills so much as it goes beyond the typical chalk-talks presented in classrooms, and reaches those kids who resist books but will do most anything if it's on a screen. www.roadskillz.com