Time Behind the Wheel
Better preparing teen drivers is key to preventing tragic consequences.
Written By Sara Baxter
Photography By Louie Favorite
Parents worry about their teenagers driving — and with good reason. Automobile accidents injure 250,000 teens a year and are the number one cause of death among teenagers. At Shepherd Center, about a third of all car-crash patients are between the ages of 14 and 19.
Alan Brown knows this fear all too well. On a rainy day in July 2003 in Cartersville, Ga., his 17-year-old son Joshua drove his truck through standing water. The vehicle hydroplaned and crashed into a tree. Joshua died nine days later.
Looking back, Brown expresses remorse about his son’s inexperience as a driver. “Joshua didn’t take driver’s education,” he says. “We didn’t have access to it, so all he got was what I taught him.”
Experience is the primary factor in producing good teen drivers, says Rob Foss, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Good drivers have a deeply ingrained understanding of what driving is all about. They know what they need to be doing, and that knowledge can only come from experience.”
In helping their teenagers gain that experience, parents can look to state drivers licensing for the minimum requirements. But experts encourage parents to go much further to help their teens get the experience they need to drive safely.
Most states require supervised driving for at least six months. Many also mandate 50 documented hours of supervised experience and every state grants driving privileges on a “graduated” basis, typically up to age 18. New drivers in Georgia, for example, are prohibited from driving between midnight and 6 a.m., and in the first six months after a driver obtains a license, only immediate family members may ride as passengers.
But Dr. Foss notes that studies show teens need a minimum of 120 hours of driving experience before being licensed to drive independently and safely. Also, he says new drivers should be prohibited from driving after 9 p.m. instead of midnight during the graduated licensing period. That’s because 70 to 80 percent of nighttime crashes among high school-aged drivers occur between 9 p.m. and midnight, and about 85 percent of their nighttime trips occur during that window.