Teen Driver Study shows opportunities missed for teaching

I have a friend who started driving when he was 9 years old. First the Cub Cadet lawnmower. Then various tractors, and by age 13, an F-150 Ford pickup around the farm and sometimes on back roads, hauling farm products, until he got pretty good.

He failed his driving license test at age 16.

“I couldn’t handle the turn lane,” he said. “I left the back right fender over the yellow line right when I was turning into the Highway Patrol office to finish the test – talk about bad luck. Driving down a dirt path or a country road is way different from driving down a busy street with cars coming at you from both ways.”

Image / UNC Highway Safety Research Center

Teen-age driver training time is an opportunity to pass along years of driving wisdom and judgment. 

He tells it as a funny story on himself, but it’s no surprise to me. Our firm handles a lot of cases in which young drivers make the kind of mistake one might expect of an inexperienced driver. They have the abilities – stopping, turning, backing up (some even parallel parking).

They just don’t have the split-second judgment that becomes second nature to good drivers with years of experience. And while parents cannot bestow years of experience on teen drivers, they often miss the opportunity at least to teach kids the fundamentals of handling themselves on the highway and the strategies of defensive driving on the street.

The Highway Safety Research Center of the University of North Carolina points this out in an article in their spring/summer edition.

Kids often have “the skilz” as they say today, and their hand-eye coordination, eyesight, and reflexes are probably as good as they will ever be. But they don’t have the higher-order cognitive abilities that are central to safe driving according to a study published by group.

“Parents tend to focus more on how to operate the vehicle, rather than more complex issues like how to anticipate when another driver might do something dangerous,” said Arthur Goodwin, senior research associate at HSRC’s Center for the Study of Young Drivers. “To help a teen develop into a safer driver, parents should also strive to share the wisdom, awareness and understanding they’ve developed over many years of driving. These are the sorts of things that, far more than vehicle handling skills, prevent crashes.”

Most U.S. states require adult supervision for 6-12 months before teens can begin driving independently. In North Carolina, the learner stage can begin at age 15 and lasts 12 months. (Kids can begin drivers' education as early as age 14 ½.)  The first learning stage requires 60 hours of supervised driving, with 10 of those being done at night.  The intermediate stage can begin at age 16 and requires 12 hours of supervised driving, 6 of those at night.

This period allows young drivers to safely gain driving experience with support from an experienced adult. However, until recently, what parents do during the mandatory period of supervised driving, and the type of conversations that takes place during this time, was unknown.

The study used in-vehicle audio and video recorders to study 50 families in North Carolina during the first four months of the supervised driving period. A lot of conversations were about driving, indicating that parents were highly engaged in teaching their teenagers. But more in-depth conversations were sparse, and even the talks about vehicle handling waned.

            But this is the time to train your kids not to be just an adequate driver, but an exceptional driver.

            There’s one iPhone app (developed by UNC) that provides a framework for driver training situations, called “Time to Drive.”

            It sets a goal of the number of 90 hours of supervised driving and specific situations:

  • 18 hours of night driving
  • 10 trips in bad weather
  • 20 trips on interstate highways
  • 25 trips on rural roads
  • 20 trips in heavy traffic

            Pretty good blueprint to start out with.

            But also think of other driving strategies you can pass along. “Don’t follow too closely,” is the first that comes to mind, and we even have a book about it on our website. Of course there is, “Stay OFF that cellphone.”

            Teach your student driver things like how to handle themselves around motorcycles and school buses. How dangerous it is to drive while drowsy. That a tractor-trailer creates huge blind spot down the highway for a driver behind it. Or a bicycle might be just around the next curve on that scenic mountain road.

For other driver safety news, you might want to check in on the Highway Safety Research Center’s newsroom page. They have some excellent information. My current favorite headline: “Nosy driver in the next SUV. It may be cop watching you text.”

            Good thing for a teen to think about.

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