Editor’s note: This is another in a periodic series on identifying the risks Utah children face and finding solutions to protect them. Today a look at the critical role parents play in keeping teen drivers safe behind the wheel.
SALT LAKE CITY — Like many 15-year-olds, Seth Dalgleish spends part of his afternoons driving his mom or dad around town in a manual Ford pickup he’s trying to master. He has a learner's permit, his somewhat apprehensive parents and a growing sense of independence.
It’s not the first time Scott and RaNae Dalgleish of Sandy have taught one of their children to drive. Just a few years ago it was daughter Brittany, now a 20-year-old college student, behind the wheel. But the Dalgleishes still worry about Seth, the anxiety level ratcheted up by the deaths last year of two students who went to the high school where RaNae Dalgleish teaches music. They died making a left turn — they were there, then they were gone.
“That’s put safety very much on our mind when it comes to Seth driving,” Scott Dalgleish said.
Motor vehicle crashes kill more children than anything else in America. And a subset of drivers — teenagers — merit special attention. While teens account for only 8 percent of drivers overall, they are involved in 20 percent of accidents. And while the number of crashes involving teen drivers has dropped since 1996, those young drivers remain nearly twice as likely to be in a crash than older drivers.
More tellingly: Car crashes are the No. 1 way teenagers die.
Life and death at stake
Across all ages, motor vehicle crashes kill more males than females, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Typically, males drive more miles and are more likely to engage in risky practices: not wearing seat belts, driving while impaired and speeding.
Those gender differences fade as drivers age, the institute reports.
Young drivers are at the greatest risk, something parents instinctively know but hate to consider. During a recent mandatory parent-student meeting at Cyprus High School, driver education teacher Matt Miller addressed the elephant in the room.
“This is the No. 1 way your kids will die from now until they’re age 24,” Miller said, bringing the crowded school cafeteria to a hush.
He said with the help of parents, he and fellow teacher Stuart Brooks would do their best to coach the students to be safe drivers.
Parents play a unique role in training young drivers, said Stacy Johnson, manager of Zero Fatalities, a traffic safety campaign dedicated to ending deaths on the nation’s roadways.
Children are learning to drive from the time they start seeing their parents’ driving habits, she said. Does Mom wear her seat belt? Does Dad speed or drive aggressively? Is Mom talking on her cell phone?
Johnson said parents play a bigger role than a driver education teacher in keeping teens safe on the road.
“When you have parents involved, your teens are 70 percent less likely to drink and drive, twice as likely to wear their seat belt, 30 percent less likely to talk on their cellphones — all great reasons for a parent to be involved,” she said.
Jill Rasmussen was at the meeting at Cyprus High with her son Travis Hymas. He turned 16 in June and could have gone to a private driving school to learn the basics of driving.
“I don’t think two weeks in a private course is long enough for teenagers, let alone adults,” Rasmussen said. “I had him wait and do it during the school season because I feel like he needed a longer time.”
Young drivers encounter conditions much different than their parents faced as teens. There are more cars, traveling at higher speeds. While automobiles, tires and road design are vastly improved, most teens are glued to their cellphones. Add that to common distractions: passengers, music blaring and wolfing down a snack behind the wheel.
“Mostly, I worry about them being cautious, just being safe in the car while they’re traveling. It’s important they’re being attentive to what is going on and not distracted,” Rasmussen said.
Fear of missing out
Teens are often driven by a severe case of "FOMO" — Fear of Missing Out, said Stephen Wallace, senior advisor for policy, research and education of Students Against Destructive Decisions. Stir together the possibility of impaired driving, an always-on lifestyle, those other distractions and teens’ heightened but unrealistic sense of their own driving skills, and “it paints a disturbing picture,” he said. “It’s dangerous.”
SADD teamed up on a recent survey with Liberty Mutual Insurance, which has researched teen driving since 2000. Wallace says one of the most disturbing findings was that almost half of teens say they text more when they’re driving by themselves.
“Maybe they’re trying to stay connected with teens who are not with them,” he theorized.
More than half of teens surveyed said they have fallen asleep or nearly done so while driving. Wallace noted research showing that at a time when they need more sleep, not less, many teens get between three and six hours a night.
Nationally, nearly 3,000 deadly crashes in 2013 were a result of distracted driving, 300 of them killing teens, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “From texting to apps and social media, today’s teens are faced with innumerable disruptions behind the wheel,” the study found.
Teens also have a mistaken notion that parents who text them need an immediate response. Parents in turn, expect the teen to get the message when they arrive somewhere, not while driving. It’s a disconnect.
“There is a chasm between what they perceive parents want and what they really want. That’s one reason to be explicit and have a parent-teen driving social contract. Expectations or lack of them should be part of the dialogue,” said Wallace.
Parents must set a good example and talk frequently with their teen driver about safety. Wallace recommends using the parent-teen driving contract that Liberty Mutual and SADD created to guide the conversation. It ends in an agreement about acceptable behavior behind the wheel.
“It’s proven that if you put driving restrictions on young and inexperienced drivers, crash rates are reduced and teens have time to figure out how to deal with different situations on the road,” said Jenny Johnson, a Utah Department of Health spokeswoman.
Bryan Delaney, a college freshman in Ithaca, New York, has been driving about 18 months now. He has rules for the car to keep himself safe: He turns his phone off when he closes the car door. He selects the music playlist before he starts the car so he won’t be tempted to tinker with it later. He figures that’s a distraction, like eating in the car or texting, though people don’t think as much about it.
He grew up in Easthampton, Massachusetts, which had a graduated driver license.
“I liked it,” he said, “because it took the responsibility from me as a young driver. It allowed me to follow the expectations and the laws that my state obviously promotes.”
Graduated driver license laws are becoming common: 48 states restrict nighttime driving, 46 have rules about passengers. Utah’s version prohibits newly licensed drivers from carrying passengers for six months, limits driving at night and allows only licensed drivers over age 21 as front-seat passengers.
Graduated driving laws help new drivers gain experience before they encounter situations or conditions that place them at higher risk of crashes, injury or death, Jenny Johnson said.
Since Utah’s law went into effect in 1999, the number of teens ages 15-17 killed in motor vehicle crashes dropped 62 percent.
Despite the success of these laws elsewhere, graduated driver license laws were a tough sell in Utah, said Rolayne Fairclough, a child safety advocate who lobbied lawmakers for changes to Utah law.
“Parents were calling me, just screaming at me, because they were so upset that I was going to impinge on their child’s right to drive. They said they had been waiting for 16 years to have them help with the driving,” said Fairclough, spokeswoman for AAA Utah.
Lawmakers passed the law but carved out an exception allowing young drivers to ferry members of their immediate family.
“It would have been lovely if the states had been able to pass a pure law without any exceptions. But it’s better than nothing. Actually, it’s really quite good,” Fairclough said.
Once parents saw that becoming a competent driver is an ongoing process, they have embraced the laws, she said.
“Just because your child got a license from the state doesn’t mean they’re a refined, skillful driver. It just means they passed the test,” Fairclough said.
Rasmussen is sold on the idea. “I have to be honest. I love the whole six months before they can drive with friends.”
Bridgestone America has long promoted teens' driving safely, but it's now taking the message on the road with free driving seminars that put teens behind the wheel of a BMW, coached by a professional driver who shows them things they might otherwise learn the hard way, like how to handle a spinout. The instructors visit different cities and recently stopped in Salt Lake City.
“If they’re on a slippery road, we want them to know what to do,” said Rachel Withers, communication leader for Bridgestone and its Teens Drive Smart program. The pro drivers tackle everything from unruly passengers to tuning out distraction. They even use golf carts to show the impact of texting on attention. The pros also coach on ways to avoid accidents.
It is an attempt to give young drivers tools to help compensate for lack of experience. While a half-day seminar can’t outperform 30 years behind the wheel, it can get new drivers through some unexpected challenges, Withers says.
That lack of experience shows up in Utah and national crash statistics: In 2013, Utah teen drivers had 10,852 motor vehicle crashes, resulting in 4,974 injuries and 26 deaths. Most of the deaths were attributed to not wearing seatbelts — that increases the risk of death by 126 times.
Parents often try to shelter their young drivers from tricky terrain. They don’t want them driving on icy roads or hairpin curves. But it’s better to go with them and show them how, so they know what to do when they can’t avoid it later, said Jenny Johnson.
It looks like a yearbook or the picture book from some youth camp: Young faces are peering into the camera with eagerness, even joy. It is a rare visage that isn’t smiling. They are youths who appear to have bright futures.
It is in reality a roll call of the dead: Annual memoriam books compiled by the Utah Department of Health, the Utah Department of Transportation and Zero Fatalities to tell the story of teens killed in motor vehicle crashes.
Each year, the books provide a sense of a teen now gone who should be planning for college or playing with family and friends or falling in love. It’s a sober reminder for teens that mistakes can be costly and youth does not confer special protection, which is why the target audience is also teenagers.
This is the time of year the participating agencies compile their stories, Stacy Johnson said.
“It’s probably one of the hardest times of the year when I work with Zero Fatalities. Families share their stories how they lost their loved ones, their teens on Utah roads. Sometimes their teens caused the crash. Sometimes they were in the back seat of the car when the crash happened.”
While many parents participate because they hope telling their stories will spare others the same painful losses, others like Melissa Brown of Brigham City had to work up to it:
“I didn’t want to do anything for Zero Fatalities or anyone else. Oh my gosh, how can I write this story? I don’t want to write this story. I don’t want to write her story,” Brown said.
Still, Brown told how her daughter Mandi, 16, and her friend Tyler, died from injuries resulting from a 2013 pickup rollover on I-15 in northern Utah. The 18-year-old driver lived but broke his back. None wore seatbelts.
“I could feel Mandi just saying ‘Mom, you need to do this.’ I just felt I needed to do this,” Brown said in an interview earlier this summer.
Fairclough said one of the challenges of encouraging parents to be active partners in their child’s safety on the road is that many moms and dads can’t bear to think that their child could be killed or severely injured in a car wreck.
Fairclough can’t hold that risk at arm’s length or look at it clinically: Her own son died in a car crash.
“People here don’t think it will happen to them. No, this really happens and you really need to be careful. It happens all the time. The problem with traffic crashes, they happen drip by drip. It’s so individual you don’t see it as the real crisis it can be,” she said.
When Harris Interactive polled 655 teenagers for State Farm Insurance in 2013, it found that 40 percent of those with permits or licenses believed getting into a crash or not was out of their control. However, the majority said they are personally responsible for their own safety while driving and 55 percent were concerned about their level of knowledge and skill behind the wheel.
Nearly two-thirds said they’d “been in a “scary driving situation.”
Among the risky behaviors noted in the survey: reading texts (36 percent), sending texts (30 percent), web surfing (12 percent), updating social media (10 percent) and reading emails (6 percent).
More cheerful findings included that two-thirds who drive at least an hour a week say they put their phones away while driving "at least frequently." And more than 90 percent wear seat belts.
Jenny Johnson of the health department said that is crucial.
“The crashes that do happen are often the direct result of inexperience or — when it comes to injury and death — not wearing seatbelts,” said Johnson. “Teens are the lowest seat belt user group. Teenage brains are still developing. They are not doing it to be risk-takers, but they don’t understand the consequences.”
She said teens often die alone in cars because they will wear the belts with peers and parents, but they don’t think about it when they’re by themselves. That’s one reason parent involvement is key — ”parents actively involved, enforcing rules, having family rules for the car.” Parents who consistently have rules on what is and isn’t acceptable keep kids safe, she said.
Nearly two-thirds of the teens in the State Farm survey said the best way to learn to drive was with their parents.
It’s not a foregone conclusion that teen drivers will die in traffic crashes. Crashes causing injury and death are mostly preventable, Zero Fatalities’ Stacy Johnson said.
Motor vehicle deaths fall into one of five categories: drowsy driving, distracted driving, aggressive driving, impaired driving and not buckling up.
“When we get those behaviors under control and out of the way, think how many lives are saved, truly,” she said.
Added Jenny Johnson, “If you believe by you doing something your child is going to be safe, that’s very empowering. Parents need to know how important they are.
“Parents have to know young driver education doesn’t stop when driver ed does.”
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