Legislature and You-Teen Drivers

Reid HollisterMy son Reid (pictured on the left, at right) would have turned 25 this month. I say would because he died, the driver in a one-car crash, at age 17, just 11 months after getting his driver's license.

My son's death devastated our family and our community. After seven years, we don't cry as much as we used to, but we are left with painful wonder: what would Reid have been doing today if he had lived?

I start with my tragedy only to introduce myself as more interested in safe teen driving than the average parent. If my opening has made you roll your eyes, I ask you to give me a few hundred words of your time, based on my promise that the rest of this is about you, not me.

You may have heard of the famous prayer asking for the ability to accept what we cannot change, the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Safe teen driving is similar. Let me explain.
Timothy Hollister is an attorney and teen safety advocate in Connecticut. Author of Not So Fast: Parenting Your Teen Through Dangers of Driving, he has been a rational voice promoting better teen driving education and increased awareness of parents' role in keeping their children safe behind the wheel.

Allstate Foundation School Flag Raising

In the past ten years or so, scientists scanning the human brain have shown that its ability to function is not complete until we reach about age 25, and the last parts that develop are judgment and restraint – the ability to perceive danger and take action to reduce or avoid risk. This differs from intelligence, personality, or character; it just means that until our brains finish growing, we don't fully detect the danger in a situation, or we underestimate it. This is, by the way, relatively new science, not anything your parents learned in high school or college, so don't expect them to automatically appreciate this new perspective, much less apply it to your driving.

The human brain's ability to function is not complete until we reach about age 25.

So, brain development is one of those things we can't change. Another is the time it takes to become an "experienced" driver. The experts say three to five years. Though Driver's Ed is crucial and every bit of practice helps, twenty, fifty, or one hundred hours do not expose us to the wide variety of judgment calls in complex situations that drivers must be able to make. Learning how to react takes thousands of hours. There are no shortcuts.

What do these unchangeable characteristics mean for you as a new driver? Here's a concrete example. You're on a two lane road, with the opposite lane's traffic coming toward you. You are running late. Directly ahead of you is a delivery van that is moving more slowly than you'd like. In the distance, in the oncoming lane, is a big truck. You quickly consider whether you can pull into the opposite lane, pass the van, and get back into your lane in time to avoid that truck.

Here's the difference between a new teen driver and a mid-20's driver with several years of experience: when a young driver makes this snap decision, the brain does not signal, or at least doesn't send an urgent warning, about the danger of not getting back into lane.

On top of this, a new driver's ability to evaluate the relative speeds of the three vehicles is shaky at best and guesswork at worst, because this is not a situation that can be taught or practiced in Driver's Ed – it's too risky.

The teen driver pulls into the left lane and guns the engine, trying to stay in lane while also reevaluating, second by second, the relative positions and speeds of the van, the truck, and the car. It either works or a serious crash results, all because of what the new teen driver doesn't have and can't summon on demand, judgment and experience. Teen drivers are safe until they aren't. Numbers that demonstrate the problem include, on average, 14 teen deaths and more than 100 serious injuries every day in the United States. Nothing kills or injures more teens than driving.

In fact, in my home state of Connecticut in 2007, a 17 year old driver trying to pass and get back into the right lane misjudged and killed himself, his sister, and his sister's friend, driving after school. Their crash led to our state strengthening its teen driver laws. What you cannot change, if not understood and factored into your driving, can injure or kill you.

African American teen learning to drive with mom

What about your driving can you control? There are five big dangers that present a choice every time you get behind the wheel. A way to remember them is P-A-C-T-S: passengers, alcohol and drugs, curfews (night driving and fatigue), texting/electronic devices, and seatbelts.

Every teen passenger in your car increases the risk of peer pressure to drive recklessly. Alcohol, drugs, and anything that slows or eliminates reaction time, coordination, or judgment make an already dangerous situation worse. The later you are on the road at night, or the sleepier you are (which could be any time of day), the bigger the risk of a crash. Texting or using any electronic device to text, type, read, make a phone call, or watch a video is driving blindfolded. And an astonishing 50 percent of the 3,000 to 4,000 teens who die each year in crashes in the US are not wearing seatbelts.

Wisdom for teen drivers, then, is 1) recognizing the baseline dangers you can't avoid; and 2) taking on the PACTS dangers as an ingrained habit, by limiting passengers, avoiding alcohol and drugs, getting off the road early or when you are tired, using electronics only when you have pulled over or stopped, and demanding seat belts of yourself and everyone in your car.

An astonishing 50 percent of the teens who die each year in crashes in the US are not wearing seatbelts.

It's important to remember that as a driver you have responsibilities, but you also have rights. If a parent or supervising adult pushes you to drive when you're not ready, push back. Don't let adults put you in an uncomfortable position – chauffeur, for instance – for their convenience. If someone tells you, or assumes that because you've taken Driver's Ed and passed the state's tests, that "you're a safe driver now," don't be lulled into believing it.

Anyone can drive a car. Neglecting the PACTS dangers is easy. Breaking traffic safety and teen driver laws can be a momentary thrill. The best way you can show others that you are on your way to becoming a responsible adult is to take the risks of driving seriously. While you're at it, remember to respect parents and supervising adults, law enforcement, school officials, and others whose job it is to keep you safe by limiting your driving until those brain development and experience issues are behind you.

In a very real way, teen driving laws and the work of so many people who try to keep new drivers safe have one goal: to help you understand what you can and can't change about driving, and apply this wisdom through your teens and early twenties. My hope for every teen getting a driver's license is that driving won't leave your family and friends with grief and wonder, and that you will be able to show them the promise of your young life.


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  • 42 Comments
      Chris
      • 5 Months Ago
      I am sorry for what happened to the author's son. At age 16 with my newly minted drivers license, I took a friend for a ride in my father's 1990 Mustang LX 5.0 (notchback - for the older guys here...). The car was fast, but my judgement poor and experience limited. When attempting to pass a car, moving left into oncoming traffic, I misjudged the distance I had to complete the move. Luckily for us, the car I thought was far off in the oncoming lane recognized my error and quickly pulled off to the side of the road. I passed 'safely', without accident, but to this day (almost 25 years later), the experience haunts me. This wasn't my only close call, but later after some maturity, marriage, and especially fatherhood, I changed my driving habits for the better. I still love cars, but I don't need to prove it by being reckless.
      methos1999
      • 5 Months Ago
      I remember hearing a broadcast on NPR about child and developing brains. All the science may be new, but they were saying it comes as no surprise to Insurance companies, basically summing it up as "They're all idiots until about 25", which incidentally, is the legal age for renting a car.
        Jasonn
        • 5 Months Ago
        @methos1999
        You can rent a car as long as you are over 21 but they charge you twice as much until you turn 25.
        SloopJohnB
        • 5 Months Ago
        @methos1999
        I think it's males that are pretty much idiots until they're 25. Some girls, too, but mostly guys.
      Justin
      • 5 Months Ago
      Too true. Things are especially dangerous for a teen with a sports car which I have experienced first hand. When I was 18 I got my first car which was a sports car. Nothing incredibly powerful but it was still pretty fast. Sometimes driving a car like that makes you not think clearly. The growl of the engine makes you want to drive faster. I would take off on green lights just to see how fast I could get up to the speed limit. I hardly ever went over the limit but I would still consider my driving back then to be dangerous. Worst of all is the constant pressure to "show what it can do" to your friends. One day I did just that. I drove way to fast through some tight corners, my breaks locked up and I ended up wrecking. Everyone was fine and the car was ok after some repairs but the situation could have been much worse. Driving past that location still gives me the chills. If I had went any faster or hit at a different angle, I would have flipped the car and who knows what would have happened. To this day, I still have not forgiven myself for that. However, it's a good reminder of how powerful and dangerous a car can be. I am currently in the stages of getting my next sports car but this experience will always be a constant reminder not to test the limits. If you have a fast car and can't shake the "Need for speed feeling": 1. Take it to the race track Or 2. Get yourself a steering wheel and buy your same car in a game like Gran Turismo. You can drive it as fast as you want without real risk.
        SloopJohnB
        • 5 Months Ago
        @Justin
        Not said in the article was the concept that 4-5 teens in a car seriously change the driving dynamics, acceleration, braking, cornering. 4 teens in a Yaris…Priceless.
      bcsaxman
      • 5 Months Ago
      One word: Go-Karts I'm not being flip here. "DESIGN" has it right: If every young girl & boy had instruction & experience behind the wheel of a motorized kart on a closed course (strapped in, helmets, wraparound bumpers, etc..), I know we would have much better drivers on the road - at ALL ages. Human beings get good at things pretty early in life, if presented the opportunity & training. Even Western societies in the past, looked at age 7 as the point when you could start teaching kids all sorts of useful things. It's why we had kids working in factories, and why some are toting guns in some war-torn countries today. And no, I am NOT advocating such things. Only pointing out the extreme range of 'skills' kids can master, much earlier than we 'Moderns' would expect. It even helps alleviate the problem of less mature brains not judging risk as well as mature brains. I've seen children judge risks just fine, after they've been exposed to it, and with guidance from an adult teaching what those risks are. Tens of thousands - maybe even hundreds of thousands - of 14 & unders are flying airplanes, hunting with high powered rifles, & sailing in open ocean competitions every year, without incident. So there's no reason a young person can't learn & even understand the hazards of driving before 18 yrs old. If we teach them earlier, it simply means by 25 they'll be even better at judging risks behind the wheel than they otherwise would have been. Last, I just want to say to "Larry Litmanen" & "SloopJohnB"; you two are so far off base it's bizarre. More red-light cameras? More tech in cars, further taking the skill of driving out of our hands? Why not just advocate full frontal lobotomies & Matrix-style jacks in the backs of everyone's head by age 16 while your at it? I only slightly jest. Look, part of the problem we have today - in everything, not just driving - is we take more and more skills, responsibilities, and yes freedoms away from people, usually in the name of safety, and then wonder why we have so many 'idiots' on the roads (or on the job, or running for office, etc …). And of course, all of these techno-wonders, in the cars or at the intersections or whatever, wind up costing citizens way more money than simply teaching them how to do something for themselves, correctly. I had pretty good drivers ed in my high school when I was a kid - did me a lot of good. The same high school today no longer has it. The money has been diverted to charter schools, or is simply not coming from the state in the amounts it used to. We have plenty of corporate tax breaks going around to keep jobs though (even though the jobs don't seem to be showing up). And of course, the trillions we've spent on pointless wars in the MidEast are a factor of life that didn't exist in my H.S. days. But yeah, along with those things, self driving cars, and additional revenue streams for police departments … problems solved! These are what pass for priorities these days.
        Genericbeer
        • 5 Months Ago
        @bcsaxman
        You're discovering that Larry Litmanen is an idiot. Welcome to Autoblog.
      D E S I G N
      • 5 Months Ago
      I remember when I was a teenager and drove a car on the roads. I remember making lots of misjudged and unnecessary risks. But I learned from them, that's where experience comes from. It's not always from time, but how one experiences that time. Drivers need to be taught and given the opportunity to feel how a box on four wheels behaves under all conditions. I think kids need to be given the experience of driving at an early age, perhaps with a go kart or even a full size vehicle in a controlled environment. My father let me experience first hand what driving is like when I was just 8, and the car was standard. But for me it came naturally, since I was always an avid car enthusiast and still enjoy the pleasure of driving. But a lot of people see it as a tool, just 'a to b' as they say. That is the wrong approach to driving. Driving is part of almost everyday life, so why should it not be experienced form an earlier age then 16, like math or science. The only way a human being can anticipate a situation and deal with it better, is to go through it before hand. This is where proper training comes in. I have two little girls, one is 10 and the other 6. I intend to teach them how to handle a vehicle, not be afraid, and instill confidence in their ability to control a vehicle. People shouldn't be afraid and tense when they drive, that is the worst way to handle a car. They need to know the limits, be aware of the conditions, and be prepared ahead of time. Sorry for the loss for all the ones who had to go through such a tragedy. Teach yourselves how to drive, and then teach those you care about, it will create a ripple effect better then any law, gadget, or safety measures. Peace.
      Doug Robb
      • 5 Months Ago
      I understand where the father is coming from all too well, my good friend and co-worker Alex Peterman would have turned 22 a few days ago but sadly on New Years Day for whatever reason he took a 30mph S-Bend set of curves at 60-80mph in his Mazda B2000 pickup and crashed head on into a tree. Don't want to have to help another family through something like this. His mother is also a co-worker and close friend and it took a long time for all of us who knew him to process the idea that he would be dead at 21yrs old.
        StephenT
        • 5 Months Ago
        @Doug Robb
        My girlfriend's 17 year old son was killed just before New Year's in a car he was a passenger in with a 16 year old driving. Wet roads, too much power in a car with little experience is not a good mix.
      mikemaj82
      • 5 Months Ago
      Oh boy here we go. Its not just teenagers its everyone. There is no experience with driving...you either got it or you don't. Today a 50 year old guy almost t-boned me going through a stop sign. My speed was 20 and his was even less..he did slow down but never stopped and rolled through the sign while staring at me.
      Petrol
      • 5 Months Ago
      Seeing the new comment interface, hopefully gives a relief. What a pos the other one was, littered with errors and laggy indications of votes.
      Nowae Amigivingittwo
      • 5 Months Ago
      Sadly teen drivers are taught the blatant stuff that is later found to be true because we don't want to destroy stereotypes - 'driving faster does not get you to your destination any quicker' 'driving faster does not impress the opposite (or same) sex' 'you've driven 100 mph so now it's 'been there done that'. You do not need to be the first one to the signal or the stop sign. A parking lot is not the Indy 500 track.
      Jim R
      • 5 Months Ago
      My open letter is a lot shorter. Dear Teenager. You're not invincible. You DON'T know what you're doing. Put down the phone, put down the latte and put your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. Screw up and it'll be your head.
      BipDBo
      • 5 Months Ago
      "And an astonishing 50 percent of the 3,000 to 4,000 teens who die each year in crashes in the US are not wearing seatbelts." What the ....!? Have teens become even more stupid since I was a teen? Most of my friends were shockingly reckless drivers, and I wasn't exactly driving Ms Daisy myself, but we all wore our seat belts, every time we got into a car. Now that I have kids, they freak out if I start to pull out of a parking space before they are buckled. Why anyone would not wear their seatbelt is just beyond me. It makes my brain hurt trying to figure it out.
      OneStepCloser
      • 5 Months Ago
      I'm a 17 year old auto enthusiast and I agree wholeheartedly with this letter, with one exception. Teen passenger laws. I mean, how the hell is a teen supposed to drive his girlfriend to a date? Does the government think his parents should drive or something? Serious question.
        Justin
        • 5 Months Ago
        @OneStepCloser
        The laws are there to prevent the teen from trying to "show off". If there is not one there to show off to, then you are less likely to do stupid stuff that could get you killed.
          jajak
          • 5 Months Ago
          @Justin
          I never understood this when I got my License but it makes so much sense. To this day if I have a buddy in the car the chances of me doing something a little sketch increase, and I like to think I'm smarter now then I was back then
        Hernan
        • 5 Months Ago
        @OneStepCloser
        The only time I remember feeling lucky that my reckless driving didn't result in a very bad accident, I was a teenager with several other teenagers in the car - showing off (cut across several lanes quickly at high speed). No harm done thankfully, but I almost lost control and it scared the Hell out of me. A friend who was riding in another car and saw it happen actually came to talk to me afterwards about it telling me to take it easy and be careful, so yeah it was pretty bad. I'm in my 30s now and thankful that things didn't turn out differently.
        Richard
        • 5 Months Ago
        @OneStepCloser
        It is only stating that the risk of injury goes up as the number of passengers goes up. So, if you have a 10% chance of getting into a single car accident simply because of your age, you pay have a near 100% chance if you nail all of the PACTS on the head. As a person that grew up with fast cars at a young age and crashed them from time to time, all the while cell phones were coming available instead of pagers, I can say without a doubt that each one of the PACTS are 100% accurate based on my own life experiences.
        Peg Bainbridge
        • 5 Months Ago
        @OneStepCloser
        Yes.
        SloopJohnB
        • 5 Months Ago
        @OneStepCloser
        Serious answer…no teen passengers other than family until you're eighteen and/or have a year of experience behind the wheel. 17 is still too young to drive someone else's precious daughter on a date. Get the parents to drop you off.
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