When Patrick Donohue gave his then-16-year-old daughter a car of her own, it came with a clear warning: If there was any evidence that she’d been drinking and driving, he’d sell the car the very next day. “I told her, ‘That will be the first and only time you’ll drive under the influence on my watch,’” says Donohue, of Magnolia.
Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death nationwide for teenagers. In Washington state, young people between the ages of 15 and 20 accounted for 62 percent of all traffic fatalities from 1995 to 2005.
Like Donohue, all parents of teens look for ways to keep their young drivers safe behind the wheel. A good first step, safety experts say, is to make sure your teen understands and follows limitations on new drivers set by Washington state law. In 2000, the state adopted a graduated driver’s license system that was made permanent in 2007. Under the law, new drivers are issued an intermediate license for six months. The license prohibits them from driving between 1 and 5 a.m. and restricts them from driving with other teens in the car.
The law has saved teen lives, according to Dick Doane of the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission. In the first seven years after the law took effect in 2000, teen car fatalities were reduced by 54 percent, saving 87 lives.
Teens are different
Doane says passage of the law faced a lot of opposition from those who said it was unfair to treat teenage drivers differently than other drivers. “We respectfully disagreed with them,” he says. “Teenagers are different.
“If you put peers who are my age in a car with me, I become a safer driver. If you put a bunch of teenagers in a car with a teenage driver, their risk essentially doubles.”
Despite the obvious benefits, Doane says, the commission gets frequent calls from parents who are frustrated that their teens can’t drive friends around. Parents often face pleas from their teens to make exceptions. “I went through this with my own kids,” says Andrew Finley, a Pierce County law enforcement officer.
Finley, who also founded the Puyallup 911 Driving School, has twins, a boy and a girl. “They’d say, ‘Dad, just this once. My friend needs a ride home,’” he says. Finley held the line; after all, he’s a law enforcement officer and a driver’s education instructor. And he knows what’s at stake. “I know what it’s like to knock on someone’s door at 2 in the morning to tell them their kid’s been killed in a car accident,” he says.
“So it’s inconvenient to follow the rules. A funeral is inconvenient, too.”
Enforcing the law can be tricky. Doane recalls that Lacey police officers set up a checkpoint outside a local high school to warn teen drivers against illegal passengers. Soon, officers back at the school parking lot noticed large numbers of teens jumping out of cars. Teen passengers who had been caught were using cell phones to warn their friends back at school.
Taming the ’tude
Finley says teaching teens to drive is the easy part; the challenge is to work on the teen attitude. “These kids have a fearless mentality; they’re teenagers and they think they’re going to live forever. They translate that attitude into their driving patterns,” he says.
Worries about a teen’s tendencies toward recklessness may lead some parents to seek help from technology. Seattle-based Safeco Insurance has a program called Teensurance, which allows parents to monitor their teen’s driving through a small global positioning device on the car’s dashboard. Parents can also set limits on the car’s speed and location through a Web site. If the teen driver speeds or strays too far from home or school, parents are contacted through email, a text message or a cell-phone call.
Technology may be useful, but parents’ greatest resource for protecting their kids won’t cost them anything. It just requires vigilance and respect for the rules already in place, law enforcement officer Finley says. “These provisions are there to protect teenagers, because they’re young and reckless,” he says, “but they’re also there to protect us, because we’re on the same streets.”
Doane echoes that sentiment. When parents get frustrated with the rules and tired of being harassed by their teens to break them, they should remember this: “All we want to do is keep them alive,” he says. “At least then, they’ll be around to resent you.”
For a driving contract you can use with your teenager, click here.
Elaine Bowers lives in Magnolia with her husband and twin teenage daughters.