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There’s No Substitute for Experience When it Comes To Driving

Two crashes in nine days -- it’s enough to make an experienced driver cry uncle. But when it’s a teen, it’s sure to send a parent over the deep end.

“Mom, we’ve got a problem,” four words I didn’t want to hear my teenage son say when he called one day after school. That problem turned out to be an altercation with a dump truck.  Thankfully, no one was hurt, but my car is now in the shop awaiting $6,000 in repairs due to a sideswipe.  Just nine days later, he called again and this time his opening statement was even more unsettling, “Mom, it’s really bad.”  He was struck head-one by another vehicle that slid into his lane on a slick road.  Again, no injuries, but dad’s car -- a total loss -- was towed from the scene.

Teens, as I’ve said repeatedly, have the highest crash rates of any age group on the road.  And those first six months of independent driving (he’s been licensed since mid-August) are particularly dangerous.  That’s because the novice behind the wheel doesn’t have the skills or experience needed to recognize a hazard and take corrective action. Researchers point to driver error as the most prevalent reason for teen crashes, with recognition (i.e., inadequate surveillance, distraction) and decisions errors (i.e., following too closely, driving too fast for conditions) topping the list.

While I’m inclined to encase my son in bubble-wrap and lock him in his room, that’s not going solve the inexperience problem. The only way he’s going to become a better driver is to drive.  So three days later he was back on the road.  I was holding my breath until he got to his destination, but upon receipt of his usual pithy text “here,” I exhaled.  

My son and I have discussed both crashes numerous times since those fateful days before and after Christmas (talk about the ultimate gift, no one was injured) not only as we filled out the insurance paperwork, but to help him learn from the experience.  I don’t want my teen to beat himself up about what happened (he is covering the deductible for the first incident and was shaken up by both), but for a new driver, a crash is the ultimate teachable moment.  

Looking back on the first incident, he clearly misjudged the distance and speed of the oncoming vehicle (physics brought to life).  “I honestly thought I had enough time to make the turn,” he said, “but I didn’t know how fast he was going or how close he really was.”  He had also thought about turning right rather than left at the intersection (Four Bridges and Bartley Road adjacent to West Morris Central High School, the site, I’ve since learned, of numerous motor vehicle incidents) and going the long way home that day, but opted for the latter.  I asked him if he’d thought about staying at school a bit longer to allow the traffic to clear (there are no roads more dangerous than those adjacent to a high school at dismissal time).  “I didn’t mom, cause I hardly ever come home right after school.”

What’s the take away?  Use extreme caution when pulling out into an intersection, look for large gaps in traffic and be mindful of that message on the side-view mirror that reads, “vehicles are closer than they appear.”  And if you’re not sure, don’t go.  I’ve also stressed to him that if cross-traffic is heavy, opt to go right and take the long way home or wait it out.  It may seem like a waste of time, but if it means you’ll get home safely, it’s worth it.

The second crash was more difficult to control since the other driver failed to maintain her lane and crossed into my son’s, something that could happen to anyone regardless of experience.  As he recounted what happened, I was glad to hear that he was looking ahead (scanning the road is critical for safe driving, but not something new drivers do very well) and saw her sliding.  “I slowed down and stopped,” he said, “but I really didn’t have anywhere to go.  It was either steer away from her into this big tree or sit tight.” He choose the latter and learned how cars respond in frontal crashes. 

And that’s another important take-away from both of these incidents.  He’s heard me preach over and again the importance of always buckling up and buying cars with the latest safety features.  Both he and his passenger (the only one he’s allowed to transport) were wearing their seat belts (during both crashes), ensuring that they were in the right position when the airbags deployed during the head-on collision.   Additionally, there were two impacts during this second crash -- the oncoming vehicle hit the one driven by my son and then spun and hit him again on the driver-side passenger door.  The car he was driving absorbed the forces of the crash ensuring that the passenger compartment remained intact protecting the occupants. 

So parents, if you’re thinking about buying your novice driver a car, opt for all the safety features you can find including front and side-impact airbags and traction stability control.  If you’re considering buying a used car, check out the vehicle’s safety ratings via the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or NHTSA websites.  If your teen shares the family cars, put him or her in the one that’s the safest. 

In addition to being mindful of vehicle selection, stay involved.  I’ve written this numerous times, teens who have parents who give them enough structured support to allow them to make good choices, but don’t compromise on safety, are less likely to crash.  I know what you’re thinking, if that’s the case, why did my son crash not once, but twice in less than two weeks?  (Believe me, I’ve beaten myself up about what I could have done to prevent this from happening.)  The first was without a doubt the result of inexperience and the second nothing more than timing (if he had only left 5 minutes earlier or later).  As an involved or what safety researchers refer to as an authoritative parent, I can take solace in the fact that he wasn’t speeding or on his cell phone and both he and his passenger were buckled up -- all behaviors reflective of teens who have parents who set and monitor safety ground rules.  

At the same time, I can’t lose sight of the fact that while he’s gaining experience every time he gets behind the wheel, he still has a long way to go.  It can take three to five years for a novice to be exposed to the myriad of driving situations he’ll encounter on the road.  Building the muscle-memory needed to help a driver react quickly and appropriately in a variety of situations takes time. So that’s why I’ll continue to look for opportunities to drive with my teen every chance I get.  As
one parent advocate who lost his teenage son in a car crash aptly noted, a license doesn’t a safe or experienced teen driver make, “it is up to [parents] to be an extra filter in the process...”  

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

clyde donovan January 07, 2013 at 11:06 PM
I have a Jeep I want totalled so I can collect insurance and get an SUV that's not maintenance nightmare. I wonder if Pam's son, "Crash" Fischer, can drive it around for me.
Sick of the trolls January 07, 2013 at 11:12 PM
Hey, "clyde," nobody wants to hear your moronic comments. Isn't there a bridge you're supposed to be under somewhere? Why don't you go back to NJ.com where your type of comment is welcome, because we really don't want you here.
clyde donovan January 07, 2013 at 11:55 PM
Poor, upset "troll' must have gotten kicked off of NJ.com for stalking people.
Sick of the trolls January 07, 2013 at 11:58 PM
No, "clyde," I have not stalked anyone, nor have I been kicked off NJ.com. I just can't stand to read the idiotic comments anymore. That's why I come here. And it's why I really want you to leave.
Michael January 09, 2013 at 04:30 AM
This and the countless number of kids killed driving and killed by kids behind the wheel proves that our system is flawed. I see cars full of teenagers driving around after dark and its clear the probationary drivers license isnt being enforced. Also, we should have stricter penalties in the first year of driving. If a first year driver is caught texting or talking on the cell phone while driving they should lose their license, period. You combine these first year drivers with lack of attention by using an electronic device and its a recipe for disaster. I was hit by some teenage girl texting and if it was 50 ft further down the road I would have been in the water and probably dead. Also, we should really consider doing away with this 17 year old drivers license. Rather make 18 year olds have the probationary license and then if they have no incidents on their 19th birthday they then get a full license. If they have incidents then they should have to wait another year. I say keeping cars full of teenagers driving around at night solves more than one problem. Everyone is crying for gun control when 20 kids are killed, but tens of thousands of kids are killed (and innocent by standards) killed yearly and no one cares. Seems our priorities are pretty messed up.
Abraham Clark January 09, 2013 at 06:47 AM
I think everyone should have stickers on the back of the car indicating age,sex and creed of the driver. Lets just get rid of this whole "democracy thing". Someone needs to teach their children to be better drivers and stop with this whole "nanny state" idea. Its time for parents to take thier due responsibility for their kids and stop passing their responsibilities off to police and other strangers. Spend time with your kids, watch your kids, and take care of your kids. If you don't have the time, then don't have the kids. Modern gimmicks in cars are no replacement for good drivers and cannot be relied on. Systems fail, theres no replacement for a good driver or cars would drive themselves. Consider public transportation for you're child if he is a danger to the general public. Innocent people shouldnt pay for parents that don't take responsibility for bad driving habits.
Hookerman January 09, 2013 at 12:11 PM
I see countless idiots on the road who are texting, talking on the cells, eating, even reading the paper... and they are not 'kids'. There are many instances of people killed by drunk or high drivers who are long removed from their teenage years. Just this week a man in his 30's was sentenced for killing a cop on Rte 80. He was so high on a mix of drugs, that he has no memory of the incident. You are incorrect to think that only teenagers are a problem, and they should therefore have further restrictions put on them. During winter storms, there are always a large number of fender benders. Just because the author chooses to detail her teenage son's accidents doesn't mean that only teenagers have accidents.
Michael January 09, 2013 at 12:36 PM
Hookerman you are either a teenager or completely blind to the stats. Teenagers killed and teeenagers killing others are off the charts. Yes, adults drive and text too, but newbie drivers already are at risk being inexperienced, adding a another distraction just makes it that much worse and the stats back me up.
Hookerman January 09, 2013 at 05:04 PM
First, I'm many decades removed from my teen years, but I do have two teens who are far better drivers than many adults I see on the road. Second, statistics show that the drivers who are most at risk fall into two age groups; 16-25 and those over 65. So Michael, since you want to remove teen driving privileges, I assume you also wish to do the same for older people. Are you willing to turn in your driver's license at the age of 65 simply because stats show that older drivers pose a greater risk???
JS January 09, 2013 at 06:09 PM
I Didn't turn 18 until I was in College and working full time. Should I have not been allowed to drive? NJ is one of the most strict states in the nation when it comes to teenage driving. Let me teach and parent my kids we don't need any additional laws.
Sick of the trolls January 09, 2013 at 07:33 PM
You know what, "clyde," you're right. We should also institute mandatory yearly driving tests for senior citizens like yourself, "clyde." I would hate to think that you're out on the roads behind the wheel of a car. After all, we wouldn't want to lose your wit and wisdom to a car accident... (that's sarcasm, by the way. Wouldn't want you to think I really meant that. Please, by all means, take what you think passes for wit and wisdom and go anywhere else on the internet.)
clyde donovan January 09, 2013 at 08:16 PM
There's only one answer to Pam's concerns about young drivers.........raise the driving age to 21.
NJ EMT January 10, 2013 at 07:03 PM
Personally, I am not quite sure this issue is 100% "teenage" drivers. There seems to be no consequence for bad drivers--period. I commute each day, 46 to 280 and 280 to 46, every single day. i am shocked and amazed how many drivers run red lights,yapping on cell phones, cut people off, turn right from the far left lanes, speeding and cutting in and out of traffic and often, there is a police unit right there, who does nothing. Monday night, while travelling on 46 west, a large pickup truck flew into traffic from a one of the store exits, without stopping, cut off multiple cars who had to lock up their brakes, the the driver took off into the left lane and SPED down the highway, do I need to tell you that a town police officer was three cars away? How he did not HEAR the brakes and horns, I'll never know, but this wreckless speeder, got away with it. Its the wrecklessness that causes crashes and the inexperience drivers that are unsure of how to avoid them.
clyde donovan January 10, 2013 at 08:20 PM
Let's hope Pam's son "Crash" doesn't decide to get his pilot's license!
Sick of the trolls January 10, 2013 at 11:24 PM
Seriously, man, could you be any more insensitive? You're not funny. Just go away. Go over to 4chan if you want "lulz."
Sick of the trolls January 10, 2013 at 11:27 PM
You know what, "clyde," you're right. We should also institute mandatory yearly driving tests for senior citizens like yourself, "clyde." I would hate to think that you're out on the roads behind the wheel of a car. After all, we wouldn't want to lose your wit and wisdom to a car accident... (that's sarcasm, by the way. Wouldn't want you to think I really meant that. Please, by all means, take what you think passes for wit and wisdom and go anywhere else on the internet.)

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