Have you had the “talk” with your teen yet? No not that talk. With prom season here and graduation just around the corner, opening up and maintaining a dialogue with your teen about driving is critical. That’s because May marks what USA Today reporter Larry Copeland calls “the beginning of the season of high peril” and AAA dubs “The 100 Deadliest Days” for teen drivers.
In New Jersey, crash data show that May, June and July are the deadliest months for teen drivers. So when your teen says he’s going to the prom, don’t just ask with whom, expand your query to include how he plans to get there and what’s on the agenda after the DJ spins the last record. While no teen sets out on prom night or any day of the week for that matter intent on crashing, it happens all too
frequently -- every ten minutes in New Jersey, with 11 teens dying nationwide every day. Teens, however, who have parents who talk with them about safe driving not just once, but on a regular basis, are less likely to engage in risky behavior and more likely to return home safely after the prom and each and every day.
What should you talk about? Why not use New Jersey’s Graduated Driver License or GDL as your guide -- it’s the most effective tool parents have for addressing teen driver crash risk. Since the GDL program took effect in our state more than a decade ago, the number of teen drivers and teen passengers driven by their peers who have died in car crashes has dropped to a record low. Under the GDL, teens who are newly licensed (they’re probationary drivers), may only carry one passenger and must be off the road between 11:01 p.m. and 5 a.m. Both provisions are critical since a novice driver’s chances of being killed in a crash increase by 50 percent when he has a friend in the car. As for driving at night, more than 40 percent of fatal teen crashes occur after 9 p.m. Parents who enforce these restrictions may get the eye roll, the defiant stare or the “you’re so mean” response from their teen, but hold your ground especially on prom night when you may be more likely to bend the rules. Why? According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 48 teens are killed and another 5,202 injured in car crashes during a typical prom weekend.
In addition to leveraging the GDL, make sure you understand what’s likely to trip up your teen driver. While most parents point to alcohol, here in New Jersey and in just about every other state it’s distraction and inattention, speeding and other driver errors that cause teens to crash. Alcohol, which parents often point to, is way down on the list of causation factors. I’m not saying teens don’t drink, but when it comes to drinking and driving they recognize the danger (we can thank the DARE program and the work of MADD for that). But don’t eliminate alcohol from the list of topics you discuss with your teen driver. Parent disapproval, according to SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), is the number one reason why teens choose not to drink.
If your teen is planning to attend an after prom party, talk to the adults who be there to discuss what refreshments will be served, the sleeping arrangements (if teens will be spending the night) and transportation, particularly if there are teens who are fully licensed. Even if your teen no longer holds a probationary license (he must be at least 18 and held a probationary license for at least 12 months), driving late at night is risky and teens 18-20 years of age are still novices behind the wheel. Teens are responsible for 25 percent of drowsy driving crashes so on prom night, when they’re likely to be tired, remind them that driving on just a few hours of sleep is just as dangerous as driving drunk.
Also talk with your teen about how to deal with uncomfortable or unsafe situations. If his ride home is a teen who is tired or consumed alcohol, for example, getting in the car is the last thing you want him to do. Help your teen develop a strategy that includes calling you for a ride home. If that does happen, limit the conversation to just a simple “I’m glad you called” and hold the 20 questions until both you and your teen have had a good night’s sleep.
The bottom line here is that talking with your teen -- remember it’s a dialogue which means both parties contribute to the conversation -- does matter and works. Call it the car crash “anti-drug.” So start talking and don’t stop even after your teen is an adult, on his own and out of your house. Despite being old enough to quality for an AARP card, I still get the “be careful driving and call me when you get home” reminder when I visit my mom. I appreciate and understand her concern, especially now that my only child is 16 and learning to drive. And yes, I’m talking with him about driving -- eye rolls and all.