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.
Looking to build the perfect young driver? You might want to move to Germany. The land of the unlimited-speed autobahn is renowned for the strictest driver-training standards in the world. Of course, moving isn't always an option--but Germany's tough licensing process provides a revealing look at driver's ed done right.
The experience of Greta, a German college student, is typical. Greta couldn't even begin driver training until she turned 18. She then had to attend 14 one-hour classes on the theory of driving, followed by professional instruction that included driving at night, on autobahns, in traffic, and in bad weather. Finally, after roughly eight months of lessons that cost her parents more than $1500, Greta was deemed ready for the 45-minute driving test (she passed). No wonder drivers of all ages in Germany have much less risk of being involved in a serious accident than their U.S. counterparts--this despite Germany's notorious traffic and the high speeds encountered on many autobahns.
U.S. licensing standards are less stringent, though there are encouraging signs of improvement. Most states will issue a permit to begin driver training at age 15 (some states allow teenagers as young as 14 to start). In most of the country, young drivers enter a graduated driver licensing program--a training process that's been adopted by 38 states since the early '90s. Most GDL programs are made up of three phases: (1) the Learner's Permit, where young drivers spend six months or more driving with an experienced driver, (2) the Restricted License, where learners can drive without supervision, but with limitations on number of passengers and time of day (nighttime driving is usually prohibited), and (3) the Full License, granted only after the driver reaches a specified age (sometimes as old as 18), passes a driving test, and posts an infraction-free record during the previous phases.
So far, GDL programs look encouraging. A 2001 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association involving North Carolina drivers showed that fatal-crash rates among 16-year-olds dropped 57 percent from 1996, before the adoption of the GDL program, to 1999, when the system was in place. Similar studies conducted in Michigan and Kentucky have revealed equally compelling improvements. Still, the success of any GDL program depends on one crucial element: a patient, involved parent. The student is only as good as the teacher.
Here Comes the Son
I'm now in the challenging position of being the parent of a teenage driver: My son, Matt, has recently acquired his license. Unlike many kids his age, Matt didn't seem to be in a hurry--instead of applying for his learner's permit on his 15th birthday (the minimum required age in our home state of California), he waited six additional months. Because California law requires that new drivers under age 18 take courses in driver's education and drug and alcohol awareness before a learner's permit can even be issued, Matt signed up for an online study program from California's Private Educational Network (www.penschool.com). My wife and I then had to certify that Matt had studied the material and answered the questions with no outside help. (Those who might scoff at the notion of such an honor system probably aren't considering the costs of "cheating." One cringes at the thought of a parent who would willingly allow his child to climb behind the wheel of an automobile with falsified credentials.)
Once Matt had completed his study course and obtained his permit, he signed up for six hours of driver training with a local driving school (California law requires that the first hour of highway driving be with a professional instructor). That class complete, Matt chalked up the required 50 hours of practice driving (the law specifies that 10 of these hours be at night and all 50 accompanied by a licensed driver age 25 or older) and waited for his 16th birthday.
A week before Matt took his driver's test, I installed a CarChip monitoring device (see sidebar) in the family Ford Windstar. It proved an invaluable tool for Matt to see how he was doing as a driver. It helped him realize, for instance, that he was often braking too hard and revving the engine too much.
I left the CarChip in the Windstar when Matt took his test--and was later amazed and disappointed when the unit revealed that the test had lasted only nine minutes and covered only four miles (Matt did pass, and the CarChip confirmed that he drove smoothly). I intend to leave the CarChip where it is to periodically check on Matt's progress as he begins to drive alone.
Matt's new provisional driver's license states that, for six months, he cannot carry any passengers under age 20 or drive between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m., unless he's accompanied by a driver at least 25 years old (the restrictions relax after six months, but are fully lifted only after a full year of infraction-free driving). This is proving the toughest policy to enforce, as Young Master Rettie naturally wants to go places with his friends--without a chaperone.
Yet GDL programs seem to offer a sensible compromise. Rather than preventing teenagers from obtaining a driver's license until they reach age 18 (which is the case in many countries), graduated licenses let them dip their toes into driving waters at a relatively young age. Then, in the presence of an adult, novice drivers can be gradually introduced to greater risks (such as driving at night or carrying friends) over a period of a year or more. Again, the key element is a parent who cares enough to be a good teacher.
Unfortunately, that all-important teacher--the parent--is often on sabbatical. "There doesn't seem to be a high priority for parents to teach their kids to drive," says Kathy Downing, manager of driver services for the AAA's Auto Club of Southern California. Downing reports that many parents complain about having too much to do in their own lives to devote the time necessary to accompany their children as they practice driving.
Even a parent who devotes the time to teach the child may not provide a properly comprehensive learning experience. Which is why, to help fill in any training gaps--and to reinforce the lessons learned while practicing on the road--many experts recommend an advanced-driving course. "A lot of people think an advanced-driving school for teenagers is a horrible idea--they think it makes kids too confident," says Downing (the AAA offers an extensive eight-week course). "But if kids are taught correctly, they'll realize what they're learning is for use in an emergency--to avoid an accident."
"Drivers have to understand where they can use the skills learned in the exercises," adds Bill Wen, manager of training and professional development at the AAA's national office. "It's not how well you're driving--it's how you interact with other road users. How quickly do you analyze a situation?"
Downing says the main problems for teenage drivers are poor visual-search skills and lack of experience. "Young drivers don't realize how long it takes to stop or what speed to drive to stay on the road on a sharp corner," she says. "They also have difficulty with space management--estimating the speeds of other cars and understanding other cars' blind spots."
To round out his driver education, Matt has attended two advanced-driving schools: Advanced Driving Dynamics, Inc. and Fast Lane Teen Scene Defensive Driving Course (see sidebar). In many ways, he was too "green" a driver to benefit fully from these programs. He'd probably have gotten more from the classes if he'd had a few more months of driving under his seatbelt. Not surprisingly, many advanced schools require young drivers to possess a full driver's license before they can take the courses.
Advanced-driving programs can benefit parents, as well. Many teenagers complain that their parents are too critical of their driving. Indeed, Jim Snelling, of Advanced Driving Dynamics, advises parents not to make any comments at all while riding with a teenager. Instead, Snelling says, it's best to save critiques for the parking lot, where parent and teenager can analyze the driving performance together.
A Big Brother for Young Drivers
Ever wish you could monitor your teen's driving habits--even when you can't ride along? A new device dubbed the CarChip lets parents do just that.
A small device that plugs into the on-board diagnostics (OBDII) port located under the dashboard of every car made for sale in the U.S. since 1996, the CarChip automatically stores up to 75 hours of information from the engine's computer (an E/X version holds 300 hours of info).
Remove the CarChip from the vehicle, plug it into a PC, and you can view such information as distance traveled, vehicle speed (sampled every five seconds), rate of acceleration and braking, idle time, and more. So when Johnny tells you he "just drove down to the burger joint," you'll know if he was actually impersonating Jeff Gordon at Talladega.
The CarChip goes for $139 and is available from Davis Instruments (800/678-3669; www.davisnet.com).
Advanced Driving Dynamics
Says Jim Snelling, a former race driver and instructor at the Los Angeles-based Advanced Driving Dynamics school, "You can't totally prevent people from having accidents. But you can help them lessen an accident's severity by knowing how to control the car in an accident situation." Snelling claims the roughly 6000 students he's taught in the past six years have a 90-percent-lower rate of accidents than average.
The one-day ADD course costs $350 and is designed for parents and their children. Students practice such exercises as emergency braking with and without ABS, skid control and recovery, emergency lane changes, proper visual and steering techniques, and parallel-parking techniques.
Advanced Driving Dynamics, Inc., 714/974-4233; www.advanceddrivingdynamics.com
Fast Lane Racing School
Danny McKeever's Fast Lane school at Willow Springs racetrack, north of Los Angeles, offers a unique combo: a Teenage Defensive Driving Course in conjunction with one of Fast Lane's regular race-driving schools. While Dad is out on the main track blowing his hair back in a race-prepared Toyota Celica, Biff and Betty are practicing driving fundamentals on nearby skidpads.
The Fast Lane school teaches teens how a car handles at the limit in both dry and wet conditions. Students also learn a host of accident-avoidance maneuvers--in their own cars. The one-day course costs $375.
Fast Lane Racing School, 888/948-4888; www.raceschool.com