No one should expect a teen driver to have the car control skills of a Formula One racer. Teens are necessarily the least experienced drivers on the road, and experience is the best teacher. This being said, it is critical that teen drivers possess certain skills that will help ensure their safety. Without these skills the simple act of driving could be, at best, frustrating and, at worst, extremely dangerous. Since traffic accidents are a leading cause of death among teens and young adults, it is obvious that more has to be done to increase their skill levels. Losing hundreds of teen lives each year to traffic accidents is unacceptable, and providing your teen driver with the ways to increase her or his skill levels can go a long way toward limiting this awful toll.
To help guide the discussion, let’s start by understanding the most common auto collisions. According to Kevin Quinn, Vice President of Claims at Mercury Insurance, rear-end collisions are at the top of the list, followed by collisions with parked vehicles, collisions in intersections due to a failure to yield the right of way, and running into another vehicle while switching lanes. “Most, if not all, of these collisions are avoidable if drivers pay attention to their surroundings,” Quinn said.
The following are driving skills every teen driver should possess to help keep them from becoming a crash statistic. The list has been assembled after a great deal of research on the topic of teen driving safety that included extensive review of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety data and studies. By obtaining and honing the outlined skills, teens can help assure themselves and their parents that they will be much less likely to become involved in a serious accident. These skills should, of course, be accompanied by the avoidance of critical factors that often contribute to collisions — drinking, drugs and distractions being key among them.
Proper Vision and Visibility
Safe driving requires both visibility and vision. Visibility is the simple ability to see things outside the vehicle, while vision is the ability to interpret and understand what one sees and put it to use. Sadly, even basic visibility is often disregarded by young drivers. How many take the time to clean the windshield, side windows and rear window and/or clear frost, snow and ice? How many take the time to clean and clear their outside rear-view mirrors and make certain these are positioned properly? Yet by not taking these simple steps teen drivers are depriving themselves of the visibility that is crucial to car control. What they don’t see can DEFINITELY hurt them.
Vision uses visibility to inform the brain. Driving is much more challenging to human vision than most other endeavors because a moving car travels much faster than humans can move on their own. This implies that drivers must focus their attention much farther ahead than they would if they were walking, running or even riding a bicycle. Looking ahead three to six car-lengths for every 10 mph of speed is appropriate in most circumstances. A car’s rate of travel requires more complex vision techniques to scan what is ahead of the vehicle plus what is to either side and what is behind it. Potential danger can come from any of those areas, and those dangers can occur much faster than they would in non-driving situations.
Defensive Driving Attitude
The term “drive defensively” was much-used in teen driving safety efforts in the 20th Century, but it has gone out of favor more recently. Perhaps the term is not “culturally correct,” yet the thinking behind it is still valid. Driving defensively implies that threats are all around and ever-present, and that is as true — or truer — today than it was 30 years ago. Even the simplest, most benign appearing drive can hold life-threatening events; each intersection, every car has the potential for disaster. The reason? A car is a two-ton projectile that even at low speeds can be deadly. Controlling that projectile at all times is the first requirement. Realizing that every other vehicle is an equally dangerous projectile is the second.
In an era when stop-sign-running is epidemic when drug use and impairment are on the rise when there is less respect for the law and for others than ever before, it is imperative that your teens recognize that when they drive their lives are in potential jeopardy. This is not to suggest that they drive in constant, paralyzing fear, but at the same time, they must drive with a healthy respect for the consequences of inattention, carelessness, and foolish behavior — their own and, importantly, everyone else’s.
Without trying to sound alarmist, each intersection your teen driver encounters could be the scene of a serious accident. While many parents fear for their teens when they drive at higher speeds on freeways, expressways and interstates, it is at intersections where, statistically, they are at a higher risk. Traffic crossing other traffic at angles is inherently dangerous, and the wide variation in the types of intersections teens will encounter makes combatting the danger all the more complex. Some intersections have no traffic markings at all; some are marked with stop or yield signs; and some have traffic lights. Some are simply a pair of two-lane roads crossing each other right angles; others are multi-laned and perhaps multi-road crossings with complicated stop-and-go-light systems. What they all share is that a single driver who fails to see or intentionally ignores signs, lights and other vehicles can result in the death of many innocent drivers who were obeying all traffic laws.
The antidote to this is visibility and vision. Make certain WITH YOUR OWN EYES that the intersection is both clear and will remain clear BEFORE you enter it. The green light might be in your favor, but never assume the way is open and that you may proceed safely. The second or two taken to confirm that can save your teen’s life.
Driving at Night
Statistics demonstrate that nighttime is a very dangerous time for teen drivers…and frankly for all drivers. To the inherent dangers of driving in daylight hours are the added hurdles of much-impeded visibility and potential drowsiness. Additionally, drunk and drug-influenced drivers are proportionately more likely to be on the road at night. All this implies that teen drivers should be especially vigilant when driving after sunset. Speeds should be lower and attentiveness to spot pedestrians, bicyclists and other motorists should be on high alert. The proper use of high-beam and low-beam headlights is a skill critical to safety during these dangerous periods. Initially, it is wise to forbid your teen driver from driving at night even if state and local regulations allow it. As a first step, ride along with your teen during the first few night-driving experiences to guide and assess their abilities.
Driving in Inclement Weather
Driving is dangerous enough in clear daylight; it grows yet more dangerous at night, and it can be especially dangerous for your teen in bad weather. Motor vehicles are simply harder to control in rain and snow. Both interfere with the tires’ traction, thus impeding the vehicle’s ability to accelerate, turn and brake. Because of this driving in inclement weather requires more skill than most teen drivers can bring to the task. Some is lack of experience; another factor is the lack of understanding of the physics of car control. While helping your teen understand those physics is a worthwhile goal, the first line of defense is persuading your teen to slow down in inclement weather. By driving at a slower rate it is more likely that your teen will be able to deal with the diminished traction and compromised visibility. Easy acceleration, braking and turning are called for. Further, there are weather conditions and road conditions that are just too hazardous for any driving at all by an inexperienced teen driver. A good rule of thumb: if you believe it would be difficult for you to drive in the conditions it is beyond the capabilities of a novice teen driver. It is far better to be late to an event or miss it altogether than threaten your teen’s safety and the safety of others.
Other Important Skills
The skills outlined above are the bare minimum that your teens require to drive safely. They should be supplemented by additional skills that should be developed quickly and then honed over time. Among them are the special skills required for driving on freeways, expressways, interstates and other multi-lane “divided highways.” On these roadways potential safety threats can often be behind or to the side of your teen’s vehicle, making them harder to recognize and counteract.
Even harder to develop is the skill of safe passing of a slower motorist on a two-lane road. It requires the ability to judge the speed of the vehicle being overtaken, the acceleration required to do the overtaking and the open-lane space required for all that to happen without incident. Since the potential for disaster is very real, this is an “advanced course” skill.
Less advanced are car control and collision avoidance maneuvers that include dealing with loss of traction and skids. The prevalence of antilock brakes enables most vehicles to be steered even during hard panic braking, something that was nearly impossible in years gone by, but the technique of maintaining car control and steering away from contact while mashing the brake is an acquired technique. It is not intuitive. A lesson or two in an empty parking lot will go a long way toward cementing this life-saving technique in your teen’s mind.
Other important skills include the ability to park safely (including the lost art of parallel parking) and the technique for dealing with a sudden tire failure also known by the now relatively arcane term “blow-out.”
The final skill your teen should possess is the knowledge of what to do in case of an accident. Despite our best efforts accidents will continue to happen, so a knowledge of what to do — and what not to do — in the aftermath of an accident is the final puzzle piece in the skillset every teen driver should have.