Life

Teens and cars: some advice for staying safe

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones.

By Dr. W. Gifford-Jones, Special to Postmedia Network

(File photo)

(File photo)

What should parents fear most when raising children? You could compile a list as long as your arm. But, while travelling in the U.S., I happened to read a column written by Bruce Feiler in the New York Times. The greatest fear, he claimed, should be that fateful call a child has been killed while driving a car. So, how can parents decrease this risk?

Feiler's article reminded me of a night I'll never forget. I was working on a column in upper-state New York. It was high-school graduation time. Following one ceremony, a few parents and graduates decided to celebrate. One teenage girl, a new driver, offered to drive four other girls to the event. A short time later, the telephone rang. A head-on collision had killed all five girls. It's impossible to imagine the suffering that occurred that night.

The message of Feiler's column is to never underestimate the dangers of teenage drivers. In effect, he stressed parents are not worried enough about these dangers.

Many may quickly conclude such tragedies are due to inexperience in driving. After all, surgeons and plumbers are more likely to run into trouble early in their career than later on. The old adage is still true -- "practice makes perfect."

But studies show inexperience is not the only cause. Nichole Morris, a researcher at the HumanFirst Laboratory at the University of Minnesota, has startling statistics that should keep parents awake.

Morris says the most hazardous years of life for children are between 16 and 17 -- not because of suicide, cancer or other accidents; the cause is driving. Morris acknowledges cars and roads have become safer. The trouble is young drivers make fatal mistakes that should never happen.

Research figures are staggering. The American Automobile Association reports, in 2013, nearly a million teenage drivers were involved in an accident. This caused 373,645 injuries and 2.927 deaths.

Another look at these deaths by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows every day of the year, six families in the U.S. receive a telephone call that a child has died in an automobile accident.

Why does it happen? Inexperience does play a role. Charlie Klauer, at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, says, "One in four children is going to be in a crash in the first six months of driving."

Some of these accidents are due to a lack of common sense. The use of cellphones, texting, looking at Google maps or flipping radio channels while driving violates "the two-second rule." Taking your eyes off the road for two seconds can kill. The longer the number of seconds the eyes leave the road, the greater the risk. This should be a no-brainer, but we all see this happening every day.

Another major hazard is "other passengers." Research shows it's safer to drive alone in the early months of new-learner driving. Morris reports the addition of one non-family passenger in a teenage-driven car increases the risk of an accident by a whopping 44%. Add another friend and the risk doubles. And with three or more in a car, the risk is four times greater.

Of course, a great danger is alcohol. The transportation department reported, in 2013, one-third of teenage drivers killed had been drinking. So, it's also safer to drive during the day.

Morris says handing car keys to a child is one instance where parents are careless. In effect, the more parents are involved with teenage drivers on different routes and driving conditions, the less risk of a later fatal accident.

Own a helicopter? If you do, Morris says, after handing over the key, it's time to follow them down the road. They may not be driving as safely as you think.

My thanks to Feiler for this column. I have 11 grandchildren, some starting to drive, so I feel obliged to pass along this advice. I hope they will all listen and submerge their teenage confidence behind the wheel and pay attention. It might decrease the risk of that devastating telephone call to parents.

Dr. Ken Walker (Gifford-Jones) is a graduate of the University of Toronto and the Harvard Medical School. He trained in general surgery at the Strong Memorial Hospital, University of Rochester, Montreal General Hospital, McGill University and in gynecology at Harvard. His column is published by 70 Canadian newspapers, as well as internationally. For more information, visit docgiff.com or email info@docgiff.com



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