Teen driving deaths a constant problem | SteamboatToday.com
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Teen driving deaths a constant problem

Tamera Manzanares

Learning to drive can be one of the most exciting experiences of a young person’s life.

Anticipated for months, obtaining a learner’s permit and getting behind the wheel of a car is a rite of passage for teenagers, the final few steps before the freedom of not having to ask their parents for rides.

But with bigger, faster and more cars on the road, driving has become a complicated skill, mastered only after years of experience. As a result, the Colorado Legislature periodically updates laws, requiring young drivers to practice more and have more education before taking a driver’s test.

But even with tougher standards in place, young drivers, their passengers and other drivers in their paths, continue to die.

A series of serious accidents involving teenage and young adults at the wheel this summer has served as a reminder of the continued vulnerability of young, inexperienced drivers.

Two rollover accidents, which happened about seven miles apart on July 31 and Aug. 4 near Walden, occurred when the drivers, both 15 and driving with Colorado instruction permits under the supervision of their parents, traveled off the road. In both accidents, a passenger in the car not wearing a seat belt was killed.

In one case, the driver reportedly swerved off Colorado Highway 14 after adjusting the car’s rear-view mirror. Her attempts to correct the vehicle brought her into oncoming traffic, causing her to swerve back off the road, the Colorado State Patrol reported.

It is unclear what caused the driver in the other accident, which occurred on Jackson County Road 11, to lose control of his vehicle.

On Aug. 2, an 18-year-old man reportedly fell asleep while driving a sport utility vehicle on U.S. Highway 40. His car crossed the centerline, hitting a motorcycle head on, according to the Colorado State Patrol.

The driver of the motorcycle died.

Earlier in the summer, a car carrying nine people rolled off an embankment west of Hayden, seriously injuring eight young adults. The 23-year-old driver told troopers he drank alcohol before driving, according to the Colorado State Patrol.

The rules

Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among children and young adults, and young drivers are involved in fatal traffic crashes at more than twice the rate as the rest of the population, according to the National Safety Council.

Accidents across the state spurred legislators to enact a new law, which took effect July 1, requiring minors to have instruction permits for a full year before taking the driver’s test.

New drivers must log 50 hours of driving time, including 10 hours of night driving, before they are eligible to take a driver’s test.

Wrapped up in the graduated driving requirements are a bundle of restrictions aimed at slowly giving new drivers more responsibility. Between the ages of 15 and 15 1/2, for example, permit drivers may only drive under the supervision of a driver’s education instructor or the parents or guardians who signed an affidavit of liability for their child’s instruction permit.

When a new driver younger than 18 has received a license, he or she can’t drive between midnight and 5 a.m., only one passenger can be present in the front seat, and there can be no more passengers than seat belts in the car.

The new law is designed to reduce the deaths of 16- and 17-year-olds, the most common ages of car accident victims. Driver’s education instructors say the law adds teeth to driving requirements, but it could be tougher. In California, for example, young drivers not enrolled in driver’s education courses are not eligible to take their driver’s test until they are 18. For the first six months they hold their licenses, they cannot drive with any passengers in the car who are not licensed drivers 21 or older.

Mike Loomis, a driving instructor with the Northwest Driving Academy in Steamboat Springs, said the restriction on the number of passengers in the car is particularly important. “I think our Legislature in Colorado will move toward some of those greater restrictions,” he said, estimating that a young driver’s chances of a collision increase roughly 30 percent with one friend in the car and about 80 percent with two friends as passengers.

Education

Arming teenagers with decision-making skills to help them survive the years when they are most likely to die in a car accident is the purpose of the Colorado State Patrol’s Alive at 25 program, which started in 1996.

About 40,000 young drivers between 15 and 24 have been through the program. Only one has died in a car accident.

Don Moseman, the state patrol technician who coordinates the program, said the four-hour course is less about the mechanics of driving than learning how to work through different scenarios and finding solutions to problems such as peer pressure and drinking and driving.

“It’s an attitude course, it teaches the attitude of driving a car,” he said, noting that 89 percent of car accident fatalities where the victim is 20 or younger involve drivers 20 or younger. “I think (driver’s education) is absolutely instrumental; it’s a necessity. … There’s only so much a kid will absorb from a parent,” Moseman said.

Loomis’ courses include 30 hours of classroom instruction and 10 hours of driving time with two students at a time. Driving time typically is broken into three sessions, each focusing on different skills. In addition to discussing vehicle dynamics — how cars operate during turns or braking — Loomis’ major focus is teaching students defensive driving skills with an emphasis on awareness and anticipating what other drivers might do, he said.

Jerry Buelter, a state-certified driver’s education instructor who has taught the course at Steamboat Springs High School for more than 10 years, said driving with students is the most beneficial piece of his driving course.

“I point out certain things when we’re driving that are a lot more relative than when we’re in the classroom,” he said.

The driver’s education course includes about 30 hours of independent study, allowing students to individually research and compile a notebook tracking their work. About six hours of consultation with Buelter, as well as two driving sessions, typically accompany students’ independent study.

Tips for parents

In addition to driver’s education courses, parents likely will play a major role in teaching their children to drive and helping them log driving time. While driver’s education instructors have passenger-side brakes to override students’ mistakes, parents have to rely solely on their sense of their children’s driving abilities.

Because of the dramatic growth that takes place in teenagers, particularly with respect to brain development, maturity and decision-making skills, Loomis advises parents to try to delay teaching their children to drive.

“The difference between 15 and 16 is tremendous,” he said.

Driver’s education instructors agree that teaching by example is one of the most important ways for parents to encourage good driving skills.

“They need to send a consistent message and model the behavior they want their son or daughter to engage in,” Moseman said.

To help their children gain confidence and driving skills, parents should start them driving in non-busy, limited driving environments, gradually working them up to slower city streets, downtown areas, and highways and freeways. “The biggest thing they can do is give (children) the widest range of driving situations,” Moseman said.

A new driver’s ability to control the car is an important consideration for parents gauging readiness for busy streets and high speeds. If a parent senses the car is controlling their child, the parent needs to change the driving situation, Buelter said.

“What I try to talk to kids about more than anything else is keeping control of the car,” he said. “When you get to a speed that you feel the car is controlling you, back off.”

Parents also should keep in mind that, to accommodate snow plows, many roads in Routt County have thin shoulders and steep drops that cause cars going off the road to flip in a hurry, Buelter said.

Ice and snow present some of the most challenging driving conditions, which is why Loomis recommends parents consider enrolling children in Steamboat’s ice driving school or the Master Drive program in Denver, he said.

Driver’s education instructors also note that limiting distractions is crucial in helping children stay in control of their cars. Adjust mirrors and seats before driving.

Overall, learning to drive is not an exact science but periodic headlines about serious, and often fatal, accidents involving young drivers make it clear that the more driving experience teens have, the better off they will be behind the wheel.

“Driving is the riskiest thing they are going to do up to this point,” Loomis said. “Really take their education and training as a driver seriously.”

— To reach Tamera Manzanares call 871-4204

or e-mail tmanzanares@steamboatpilot.com


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