Rookie drivers: What they don't know can hurt them

Rookie drivers
What they don't know can hurt them
by Jennifer LB Leese

A driver's license is one of the biggest status symbols among high school students.
Getting a driver's license is not only a social asset but it makes the adolescent feel more independent. Parents no longer have to do the driving--the teen can get places on his or her own. They have more freedom in a sense.
Most teens count the hours and days until they can get their learners permit (usually at age 16) and take the all-feared driving test to demonstrate their driving competence.
Parents often have many concerns and fear for their teen's safety on the road.
It is a fact--teen drivers are at an increased risk for crashes. This is due to their driving inexperience and immaturity. They lack experience in judging speed and distance, reacting to sudden changes, avoiding distractions, driving in the dark, and driving in adverse weather. Teens are also less likely than older drivers to wear their safety belts. These factors put teen drivers at a high risk for death or injury due to a motor vehicle crash. In fact, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens of driving age.
Every year millions of American teens get behind the wheel of a car for the first time.
According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), teenage drivers account for only 7% of the driving population but are involved in 14% of fatal crashes. Traffic crashes are the #1 cause of death and injury for people ages 15-19. The 16-year-old population alone will increase from 3.5 million to over 4 million by 2010.
Problems that contribute to the high crash rate of young drivers include: lack of driving inexperience, lack of adequate driving skills, risk taking, poor driving judgement and decision making, alcohol consumption and excessive driving during the high risk hours of 11pm to 5am.
"The primary cause, in my opinion, [of teenage driver accidents] is simply because we do not train our teen drivers adequately enough in this country," said Timothy C. Smith, who wrote a book to promote safer teenage driving habits. "Eighty percent of all teen driver crashes are caused by driver error. That's a stunning statistic.
"When parents learned to drive, we had far less traffic, less road rage and far less distractions," he says. "Think about all the electronic devices we've invited to our automobiles: televisions, VCRs, DVD recorders, iPods, laptops. It's astonishing. I've seen teenagers text-message on their cell phones to other teens while driving. To help reduce those distractions, eliminate them in the beginning stages of your teen learning to drive, at least the first three to six months."
The Learner's Permit
When a teenager obtains a learner's permit they can start learning to drive with an adult present in the car to supervise and teach. In most cases the best way for teens to learn to drive is through a driver's education class. Schools often sponsor these classes, however, there are several certified driver education schools available as well.
In many states, completing a driver's education course results in reduction of the teen's automobile insurance costs. Private driving instruction is another alternative.
Parents are in a unique position to show their children proper driving skills and to teach proper driving choices. Teen drivers need to get as much driving experience as possible after they obtain their learner's permit. Allowing your teenager to drive gives them experience and generally makes the teen a safer driver, easing the transition to driving independently. Not everyone is cut out to teach a teen to drive. Parents who find themselves yelling, making sarcastic remarks or being upsetting to the teen should ask their spouse, another relative or friend to help out.
Maryland Requirements
In Maryland the minimum age for applicants is 15 years and 9 months and a parent or guardian must co-sign the learner's permit application if the applicant is under 18.
* Applicants must pass all required tests.
* While driving, learner's permit holders must be accompanied by a qualified supervising driver who is 21 years or older, and has held a license for a minimum of 3 years. The person must be seated beside the new driver at all times, with no other front seat occupants.
* A qualified supervising driver (parent, guardian, or mentor) must complete a Practice Skills Log for the learner's permit holder, which is issued by the MVA along with every learner's permit.
* Learner's permits are valid for 1 year from the date they are issued.
* Learner's permit holders under 18 are prohibited from using a wireless communication device (including a cell phone) while operating a motor vehicle, except to make an emergency 911 call. Violations may result in a suspension of your driving privilege.
Driving Independently
When teens pass the official driving test they receive their driver's license and can legally drive independently. Parents, however, should not allow their teen to drive independently until the teen has sufficient experience and the parents are comfortable with the teen's level of driving skill. They should also talk candidly with their teen about the dangers and risks of distractions such as music from radio/tape/CD player, passengers, eating food and using cell phones. With road rage so commonly seen nowadays, parents should also discuss and demonstrate the importance of controlling emotions while driving--drag racing included. Inexperienced drivers often concentrate on driving correctly and fail to anticipate the actions and mistakes or errors of other drivers.
Safe drivers require safe automobiles
Parents should make sure that the vehicle their teen drives is in safe condition (brakes, tires, etc.) and working properly. The vehicle should have essential emergency equipment (flares, flashlight, jumper cables, etc.) and the teen should know how to use it.
Maryland is considered a model for tougher teen driving laws. Concern about the number of young people killed or injured in traffic crashes has prompted state legislation, sponsored by Delegate William Bronrott, to reform the way teenagers are licensed to drive. Maryland adopted the Graduated Licensing System, which went into effect on July 1, 1999. The program requires new drivers to gain more driving experience with a supervising driver. "Some of the laws that are now being passed by states increase the driving age, increase the amount of hours of the parental supervision and ban the use of the cell phones. These are all really positive developments," said Smith.
Recommended by the AAA, the system has teens earning driving privileges in a three-stage process: learner's permit at age 16, a probationary license after 6 months and an unrestricted driver's license at age 18. Bronrott says the rash of teen-driving deaths in his community was a huge wake up call. "I think most parents were very supportive of these laws," he says, adding, "a surprising number of teenagers got involved in helping the bills pass because they recognized that this is the number one threat to their lives as well."
Though it's still too early to measure the effect of these new laws in reducing the teen crash rates in Maryland, a recent study by Johns Hopkins University found that the states with the toughest rules had the fewest teen fatalities. Li-Hui Chen was one of the researchers. "We took the crash involvement rates of 15-year old drivers in those states with graduated licensing laws compared to those without," she says. "We found the average there was 11 percent reduction in crash involvement for 15-year old drivers with graduated license program. So we're encouraging states have comprehensive graduated license programs that include some sort of age restriction, nighttime restriction and passenger restriction."
However, Maryland Delegate William Bronrott notes that tougher laws alone will not solve this problem. "I think that we need parents to play a stronger role in overseeing their children's driving," he says. "We need parents to be involved in making sure that their children are biding by the laws."
Here are some Maryland Laws that should be discussed with your teen driver:
Passenger Restriction
* Effective October 1, 2005, provisional drivers under the age of 18 are not permitted to carry passengers under the age of 18, except for family members, for the first five (5) months of licensure.
* Violations may result in a suspension of driving privileges.
Cell Phone/Wireless Device Restriction
* Effective October 1, 2005, provisional drivers under the age of 18 may not operate a motor vehicle while using any wireless communication device (e.g. cell phone or text messaging device) except for emergencies.
* Violations may result in a suspension of driving privileges.
Adult Seat Belt Law
* Drivers and front seat passengers must be buckled up.
* A vehicle may be stopped and citations issued solely for violating the seat belt law.
* Unbelted occupants (older than age 16) of front seats may be fined $25 each. If an unbuckled passenger anywhere in the vehicle is younger than age 16, the driver is responsible and will be fined up to $48.
* When the driver is a provisional license holder under the age of 18, all the passengers in the vehicle they are driving (regardless of age) must use proper restraints.
Aggressive Driving
Driving aggressively is against the law. The Maryland State Police has an active aggressive driver campaign that primarily focuses on drivers who speed, follow too closely, overtake and pass unsafely, illegally pass on the right, weave in and out of lanes, fail to yield the right-of-way, run red lights, and ignore other traffic signals and signs.
Aggressive drivers may be subject to a fine of no more than $500. (Maryland MVA, 2002)
Parent Liability
Under certain circumstances, parents as well as teens may be held liable for damages that occur as a result of a teen driver's negligence. Parents may be held responsible not only for permitting or encouraging dangerous conduct but also for failing to discourage activities that result in injury or damages (e.g., drinking and driving).
Supervised behind-the-wheel driving experience is the key to developing necessary habits and skills for safe driving. Parents need to work with their teens to help them gain the needed experience and judgement.

Source: Parents of Young Drivers, American Automobile Association, the Maryland Vehicle Administration, Questia, and Maryland State Archives.