How Thinking Like a Teen Could Make You a Better Driver

How Thinking Like a Teen Could Make You a Better Driver
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My eldest son recently received his learner’s permit to drive with parental supervision. Like most parents, my husband and I have moments where we are absolutely terrified.

The data do nothing to assuage our fears, either.

Motor vehicle deaths rose an estimated 6 percent in 2016, according to preliminary data from the National Safety Council. If this estimate holds, it will be the first time in nearly a decade that we lost more than 40,000 people on our roads in a single year. This caps a two-year stretch in which deaths rose an estimated 14 percent – the steepest two-year increase in fatalities since 1964.

A rise in deaths among teen drivers – some of our most vulnerable roadway users – has contributed to the overall increase. Teens are inexperienced and lack driving skills that develop over time and with practice.

So, it may seem ironic to suggest that my son – and teen drivers in general – can provide an answer to curbing this upward trend in deaths.

Our roadways could be safer if everyone approached driving with a healthy dose of the emotions my son has today: nervousness, curiosity and caution.

Over time, we forget how nerve-racking and difficult it is to learn how to drive. After many years of making left turns, merging into traffic and driving at night, our innate sense of fallibility gives way to a false sense of security, creating a situation like we have today where our complacency is killing us.

We may all benefit from going back to basics and remembering some of the safe driving tenets we are taught from the start.

Lesson 1: There is no safe way to drive distracted

It is easier than ever to use cell phones behind the wheel. It is not, however, any safer.

We have known for many years that hands-free is not risk-free, and now research is showing that built-in, voice-activated systems in vehicles are just as distracting. Despite the research, distraction-related crashes are rising.

Remember how much focus it took to make decisions when you were learning how to drive? You do not outgrow the need to pay attention, and it is scientifically impossible for you to focus on the drive if you are using a cell phone. New drivers are taught to put down their phones, and most state laws require them to do so. All drivers should hold themselves to the same standard.

Lesson 2: Slowing down saves lives

Speed is a factor in 30 percent of all fatal crashes – either driving over the posted speed limit or too fast for conditions, which is a common mistake among teens. Despite research clearly showing the correlation between speed and fatalities, more than a dozen states have raised speed limits on segments of their interstate highways in the last few years.

High speed not only increases the likelihood of a crash, but also decreases the chances of walking away from the crash unharmed.

Our lawmakers need to reexamine speed limits and put a moratorium on raising them. But in the meantime, we need to stop excusing our own heavy feet by saying we are “keeping up with the flow of traffic.”

Lesson 3: Impairment begins at the first drink

Drunk driving crashes account for about 10,000 deaths each year, and it is not only drivers with high alcohol concentrations who are involved in these crashes. Even at low blood alcohol concentrations, drivers start to lose certain faculties that are critical to driving safely. Impairment begins with the first drink.

Despite most drivers believing that drunk driving is a serious safety threat, a recent NSC survey showed 10 percent of drivers have driven in the last three months after feeling like they were too impaired to be behind the wheel. Of those who have driven while impaired, 48 percent said they drove unsafely; they crossed a median, dozed off or drove on the shoulder and forty-seven percent reported nearly being involved in a crash.

For years, we have accepted 100 roadway deaths every day as the cost of doing business. Now more than ever, those deaths must be a call to action. Transportation safety organizations, public health officials, advocates, lawmakers and automakers are all working to get the country on a road to zero.

Drivers need to embrace their role, too.

Get into the driver’s seat every single day as if it is the first time. Instead of assuming you know your usual route, make a point to take a closer look. Be vigilant. Regain that healthy dose of anxiety and nervousness you had as a teen.

My husband and I will spend a lot of time teaching our son how to drive. Now I realize that we can learn something from him, too.

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