Make sure son is ready to drive


My son just turned 16 and is anxious to get his driver's license. My husband and I understand his eagerness because all his friends are getting theirs, but we're not sure he's ready. We have a great relationship with him and are afraid if we say no, we'll damage it. How should we handle this?

When it comes to rites of passage for teen-agers, hardly anything seems to be more symbolic of attainment of adult status than the ability to drive. Therefore, we can certainly understand your dilemma. Since not all 16-year-olds are alike, however, here are a number of factors you should consider in RTC making your decision.

First, automobile crashes account for approximately 40 percent of all deaths among teen-agers. Of these deaths (about 5,000 annually), about half involve teen-agers as drivers, with the rest being teen-age passenger deaths.

In two-thirds of cases of teen-age passenger deaths, the driver was also a teen-ager. Teen-agers have a higher per-mile death rate than all other drivers. Alcohol plays a significant role in many of these deaths, with even low levels of blood alcohol (less than the legal limit for drunk driving) dramatically increasing the risk for a fatal crash.

Of course, there are many 16-year-olds who drive safely, so these statistics should not automatically preclude your granting your son's request.

As with other important decisions involving teen-agers, we advocate sitting down with him and discussing all aspects of the decision. For example, is his interest in driving spurred by the desire to drive to work, school or after school events or is he mainly interested in using the car at night? Who will pay for gas and the added cost of insurance?

Here are some other points to consider, as suggested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in its pamphlet titled "Teenage Drivers," available from its office at (703) 247-1500:

* Seat belt use should be mandatory, as should a strict no-alcohol policy. Some would argue that any mixing of alcohol and driving should result in an immediate loss of all driving privileges for a minimum of six months to a year. In the event your son does drink, he should know that he can get a ride home at any hour of the night. The rule against alcohol use should extend to his passengers as well.

* His car should be a larger car, preferably with an air bag and antilock brakes.

* Initially, you may want to restrict his driving to daylight. If you agree that he can drive at night, accompany him during his first outings until you are certain he can drive safely during this period.

We also recommend that you personally give him lots of supervised practice. Some parents believe that a driver's education class will turn their teen-ager into a safe driver, but there is no evidence that his will do so.

Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.

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