Making driving safe for teenagers, and everyone who shares the roads with them, requires proper training, careful choice of vehicles, and — just maybe — once again changing state driver’s license laws, safety advocates said.
“The single most important factor is the time spent behind the wheel. So many of the cases we review cite driver inexperience as a contributing cause,” said Richard Burleson, director of the Alabama Child Death Review System.
Vehicular deaths account for about half of all preventable deaths for Alabamians under 18, according to the state Department of Public Health. Driver inexperience is cited as the cause in about 25 percent of those deaths.
It takes about 50,000 miles or 10 years of driving to become proficient, said Marty Spellicy, director of the Alabama Traffic Safety Center at the University of Montevallo.
Spellicy said it is important for parents to take their children out for driving practice at night and in bad weather, experiences they won’t get in driver’s education classes.
Parents, he said, must also decide what conditions their child is capable of driving in even after he or she has a license.
“Don’t just abide by what the state rules are,” Spellicy said. “It’s not hard to get that piece of plastic. Parents need to take responsibility.”
To curtail Alabama’s teen driver death rate, the state in July enacted a new graduated driver’s license law.
Under that law, someone who is 16 or 17 and has had a license for less than six months cannot use a cell phone while driving and can have only one passenger, not including adults or family members.
Those drivers also cannot drive between midnight and 6 a.m. unless they are with an adult, going to or from work, a school event or a church event.
There are also exemptions for emergencies or if the driver is going hunting or fishing with the appropriate license.
Spellicy said lawmakers might want to consider modeling Alabama’s license laws after much stricter laws in place in other states. New Jersey, for example, does not grant full driving privileges until the driver is 18.
“We could raise the permit age to 16 and the driver’s license age to 17. It might be worth the Legislature taking a hard look at,” Spellicy said.
The new graduated license law, as it stands, could help reduce the rate of teen traffic fatalities, but too few parents are aware of the law’s requirements, said Dr. Kathy Monroe, an emergency department physician at Children’s Hospital.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but I’m not sure how much the word has spread,” Monroe said of the law.
Monroe works with state troopers and deputy sheriffs to educate Jefferson County teenagers about the dangers of driving, but she said more teens need to be involved in preaching the gospel of safe driving.
Even if teen drivers are observing the basic safety rules, they are still at greater risk than older, more experienced drivers.
“Situational awareness is not great in teens. What is the driver in the other lane doing? Is that car backing up?” Monroe said. “They might be doing everything right, but they aren’t aware of their surroundings.”
The best way for a parent to keep their young drivers from engaging in dangerous driving behavior is to be a good model for their kids before they reach their teens.