Rounding a sharp, wet bend, Matt suddenly loses control of the Toyota Corolla. Steering frantically, the lanky 16-year-old, who's had his driver's license for just two months, fights to catch the slide. But it's too late. The last thing Matt remembers is taking his hands off the wheel and screaming as the Toyota spins straight into...a cone.
"Okay, Matt," says the driving-school instructor as the Corolla lurches to a stop. "Let's try it again." Both student and teacher enjoy a good laugh.
As fledgling drivers go, Matt is one of the lucky ones: Although he's already demonstrated enough driving prowess to convince the jurors at the Department of Motor Vehicles, he's now attending an advanced-driving school to actually learn how to drive (aided in no small measure by encouragement from his father, your author). Unfortunately, Matt's experience is all too rare among today's teenagers. The driver's-ed programs that trained so many generations of Americans are largely gone; most U.S. high schools have dropped such classes due to budget constraints. Faced with having to pay for their children to be trained at commercial driving schools, many parents elect instead to do most of the teaching themselves.
It's a daunting challenge--and the consequences of doing it wrong are enormous. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 82 percent of accidents involving 16-year-old drivers are caused by inexperience and risk-taking. Indeed, drivers at 16 are more likely to get involved in an accident than at any other time in their lives. And teenagers are more than four times as likely to be involved in serious or fatal accidents than adults over 30. Not surprisingly, traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans under 20.
Let's look at what parents, schools, and teenagers themselves can do to help improve the odds of staying safe behind the wheel.