For parents, the statistics are frightening — car accidents are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. In 2016, 2,433 teens in the United States were killed and 292,742 more were treated in emergency rooms for injuries due to car accidents. This translates into six deaths and hundreds of injuries per day. During the first 18 months after getting their license, teens are four times more likely than adults to get into a car accident.
Inexperience is partly to blame. The more teens practice driving with a parent or instructor, the better. By encouraging more learning time, graduated licensing programs save lives. So do mandatory restrictions on numbers of passengers and curfews. The effect of warnings, videos, and lectures designed to scare teens into being more responsible is less clear. In some cases, scare tactics can even backfire. After seeing what drunk driving can do, some teens will never want to get behind the wheel. Ever!
And yet, despite all of this practice and hand-wringing, our highways continue to be a risky place for teens. Frustrated parents, faced with sky-high premiums or worse, may be tempted to throw up their hands. Maybe teenagers, thanks to hormones and brain chemicals, are just more prone to risky behavior behind the wheel. Maybe we should just hope for the best and wait for them to grow up. After all, we’ve tried everything! What more can parents do?
The most recent research on teens suggests an answer. However, it is an answer more suited to the kitchen table than a classroom, simple yet difficult because it requires parents to set their assumptions and expectations aside.
That’s right, understand them. If you are a parent, one of the best gifts you can give your teen is to accept that their brain really is different than yours. In most cases, behavior that seems motivated by bravado or rebellion is really motivated by something else. Most teens who get into auto accidents aren’t trying to be risky.
They are trying to be social.
And the most risky driving habit of teens has to do with a device you’ve probably purchased for them, pay for each month, and encourage them to use in case of emergency—their cell phone. In most cases, teens who crash are distracted– texting or talking, including to others in the car. Distracted driving is risky. Distracted drivers make mistakes.
The Denver Project
To help teens navigate risk by educating parents, the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center, partnered with The Children’s Hospital of Colorado, has recently launched The Denver Project. According to the project, parents must understand that teens lack a cohesive sense of self and need a peer group to function as an “auxiliary brain.” Once parents understand the extreme important of the peer group they can, for example, have more meaningful discussions about cell phone use in the car. If parents do not understand the importance of the peer group, the resulting confusion and empathy breaches can make teens engage in more risky behaviors, not less.
At Shafner Law, we support The Denver Project as a way of fostering healthier teenagers and communities. You can read more about the project on their website.
And if you are trying to raise a teen, know that you are doing important work! On behalf of adults everywhere, we thank you.
Article by Molly Fuscher