We lost two more New Jersey teens last week in a motor vehicle crash in Jackson. The driver, a 17-year-old high school honor student was traveling to a band competition with her 15-year-old sister when they hit a mini-van head-on. Both were killed. The week before that four teens died in a crash on New York’s Southern Parkway. The driver, a 17-year-old and the sole survivor, is a permit holder with limited driving experience. (While police continue to investigate both crashes, speed, recklessness and a lack of seat belt use are considered key factors.)
As the leader of the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition and the mother of a teenage driver, I’m devastated every time I learn of another fatal crash. Despite having worked in traffic safety for nearly 30 years and knowing the risk for teens -- four times greater than for any other age group on the road -- I can’t help but take it personally. And while some of you reading this may be thinking teen crashes and the resulting injuries and fatalities are inevitable, a kind of right-of-passage, I can’t and won’t accept that.
We have the tool to address the number one killer of teens. I’m talking about Graduated Driver Licensing and during National Teen Driver Safety Week (and every other day of the year), I urge every parent to learn about and use it. New Jersey has what is considered one of the more progressive GDL programs in the nation thanks to an older licensing age (full licensure isn’t granted until the teen is at least 18), a one-passenger limit (which doesn’t include an exemption for siblings), an 11 p.m. curfew, a total ban on all electronic devices, and a seat belt requirement for all vehicle occupants. Additionally, we provide a means for police to identify GDL holders -- a decal -- to aid in enforcing these proven provisions.
New Jersey’s GDL program has been in effect since 2001 and since then teen crashes have dropped by more than 20 percent, while fatalities have been cut in half. But imagine how many more teen crashes could be prevented and lives saved if every parent not only understood and supported the provisions of the GDL program, but enforced them.
Sure parents are busy. I get it, I’m a parent, too. But it’s incumbent upon us to make the time to learn about and put into practice something that can help our teens survive one of the most dangerous times of their life. Contrary to what parents may think, it’s car crashes (not kidnappers, terrorists or predators) that are injuring and killing our kids. GDL works to address the number one killer of children, teens and young adults by giving parents the tools to help their teens build skill, while minimizing the things that cause them the greatest risk -- driving late at night; distraction caused by other teen passengers, cell phones, texting and other devices; as well as lack of seat belt use.
Sure your teen may be tremendously smart, athletic, artistic and/or sensible, but driving is the great equalizer. Teens due to brain development (we’re not talking book smarts here) all start at the same place when they get behind the wheel. Which means it’s incumbent upon us to give them the best start possible. That begins with GDL.
The easiest way to learn about the GDL program is to log on to njteendriving.com. The website will walk you through the how’s and why’s of the program. I also urge you to take advantage of parent/teen driving education programs that are offered through many schools and community-based settings. As the facilitator for the “Share the Keys” program, a free 75-minute orientation developed by the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety and Kean University with guidance from the experts at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, I have helped thousands of families not only gain a better understanding of why teens crash, but what they can do about it. (Want to bring the program to your school or community? The Coalition can help you do that.)
The vast majority of car crashes are preventable and while immaturity coupled with inexperience is the root-cause of most teen-related incidents, knowledgeable and involved parents make the difference. Learn about the risks for teens and how GDL works to address that risk, then get to work helping your teen not only secure a license, but build skill so he becomes a good driver for life.
Look at it this way, you’ve invested thousands of hours and dollars helping your child reach his teen years -- an exciting time not only for him, but you. You’ve clothed, nurtured, inoculated, educated and done so many other things to help him succeed. Not investing the time or effort into learning about and leveraging the GDL program for all its worth has the potential to wipe all of that out. Are you willing to risk that?