Teen drivers pose danger to selves, passengers


FRESH FEAR is sweeping through the mother 'hood, and the evidence is sitting behind the wheel of the family car.

The next generation is getting its driver's licenses, and women who have lived the communal life of the car pool are confusing their offspring by now forbidding them from having anyone else in the car.

Everywhere, teens are driving alone.

One mother read somewhere (OK, it was me) that the likelihood of a serious auto accident increases exponentially with each additional teen-ager in the car. She told her friends and they told their friends, and the result is a bunch of new drivers who are not permitted to carry passengers.

Needless to say, this restriction has been met with howls of protest. What is the point of having a driver's license if you can't show off for your friends? And the mothers are responding: "Exactly."

In part, of course, our caution springs from the fact that we have known these kids since they were babies, and we can't imagine that the state allows them to drive.

I'd hire a car and chauffeur before I would let my child ride with one of the many kids who has never visited my house without leaving something behind. What kind of a driver does that make?

But there is very real evidence that we should not allow new drivers to carry passengers for at least the first six months. (And maybe longer if the driver is my son's friend Paul.)

A National Highway Transportation Safety Administration report in November of last year found that two out of three teens who die as passengers are in vehicles driven by other teens.

A USA Weekend study of fatal crashes in 1997 involving 16-year-olds showed they are cited for more mistakes than anyone except drivers older than 82. And they carry the most passengers, 80 percent of whom are other teens, and those passengers wear seat belts less often than older drivers and passengers.

Their crash rate is five times that of drivers older than 25, but it is not because they are drunk (they are less likely to be drunk than 18-year-olds), the survey showed. It is because they aren't very good drivers.

"Things that are second nature to us are extremely complex to a new driver," says Anne Ferro, Maryland Motor Vehicle administrator. "All these things are coordination issues. If you combine that with five kids in the car, you've lost it."

That was clear to me when I began to teach my son how to drive and could not explain how to turn the key in the ignition. "I don't know," I said. "I just do it." But for him, it required eight separate steps and severe grinding of the ignition.

Maryland moved to protect its young and inexperienced drivers when the legislature approved the graduated licensing program that went into effect in July. These new rules slow down the whole process for kids, who can't get even a provisional license until they have driven for 40 hours with an adult driver.

This is a good beginning, but Maryland still has no rules that limit the number of passengers to the number of seat belts in the car and no rules that limit the number of passengers in the car of a new driver.

Other states allow the new driver to carry only one passenger for six months. Others permit only adult passengers for one year. Still others allow only family members for the first year.

Ferro would like to see Maryland limit new drivers to no more than one passenger for the first six months, but she recognizes the powerful opposition she faces. Most often that opposition comes from parents who, under the pressures of real life, are looking for convenient ways to get their kids to and from school, sports and jobs.

"All of those things are working against a fundamental principle -- their children's lives are at stake," she says.

Parents aren't just tired of chauffeuring their kids, however. Many insist that their daughters double date or "group date." And how can we plead with teens to appoint a designated driver if the only one allowed in the car is the driver?

There is no easy answer, but the fact remains that the more teens there are in the car, the more likely an accident.

"The No. 1 cause of accidents is inattention," says Lon Anderson, director of public and government relations for AAA's mid-Atlantic region. "It should be no surprise to us that teens are inattentive."

The new driver does not need to show off for his friends to cause an accident. Mere conversation can be enough to distract him or her from the complex sequence of decisions, movements and reactions necessary to drive a car on our increasingly crowded highways.

"I was doing a talk show one day," Anderson recalls.

"And a woman called to say her brother had died and left her daughter his big, old Cadillac. They drove to Indiana to pick up the car and when her daughter saw it, she said, 'Cool. A party barge.'

"The parents sold the car on the spot. The daughter never had the chance to drive it."

You wouldn't believe how fast stories like that make it around my mother 'hood.

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