from the Coroner
By Jon Brandenberger, M.D.
This message is for anyone who drives or rides in a car
in Allen County.
are all at risk from a group of people who mean us no harm, but whose record
for car crashes in undeniable. Of course, I’m talking about new teenage
drivers. Per mile driven, teens age 16 to 19 are
four times more likely to crash than older drivers. Those crashes are
usually single-car crashes, but often they include others, which makes
this an issue of life and death for everyone who uses the roads.
Most parents would do anything – ANYTHING – to help
their child avoid death in a car crash. But most parents have never been
told what they can do. So they leave it up to fate.
But there is a lot that parents can do. This can be a dangerous time of year for fatal
crashes, I wanted to share some of those action steps for parents
right now. First, some background.
I won’t even bother with the statistics – every parent
who has bought insurance for a teenage driver has probably seen them,
courtesy of your insurance agent. Insurance rates are highest for teens, not
because insurance companies are prejudiced; rather, because it is a
mathematical fact that teen drivers are more likely than mature, experienced
drivers to cause a crash.
This concerns all of us. It concerns me, because I am
the county coroner, and a physician, and a parent and because I and my
family use the roads every day.
Have you ever watched a team of young children who are
in their first season playing a sport? It’s the same whether they are
learning baseball, soccer, football or basketball. Their first season is
comical to watch, as the children awkwardly scramble and tumble around the
field of play with little regard to their position, their technique or their
teammates. Watch a team in its second year, though, and you’ll see a
profound change. By now, the children have learned the general idea of the
game and their own role on the team. Their skills advance rapidly with just
a year’s experience.
A similar growth occurs with new drivers. There’s no
substitute for experience. A teen’s first months on the road are a lot like
the child’s first season on a soccer team – except this time there is
nothing comical about it.
Driving more safely is about managing risk. Nothing
will remove the element of risk – driving at 50 mph in a 5,000 pound vehicle
is inherently risky for anyone. We all take risks every day in order to come
and go. It would be safer if we all walked from place to place. But we
assess the risk of driving and decide that the benefits are worth it.
The point is that parents need to recognize the facts.
When parents give a teenager the keys to the car, the likelihood of a deadly
crash is far greater.
It’s not because teens lack the physical maturity for
driving – quite the opposite, their reflexes are better than anyone’s. Their
problem involves decision-making.
New medical studies suggest that the teen
brain is not fully developed, and this may be a factor in their increased
crash rate. The prudent thing for their parents to do is try to control that
risk to the fullest extent that is practical.
How do you do that? By focusing on the things most
likely to help prevent deadly crashes: seatbelts, speed limits and
sobriety. A parent can’t help a teen driver avoid every possible mishap, but
my experience as county coroner points to these three fundamentals for
avoiding the worst type of crash – the fatal crash. Focus on these three —
seat belts, speed limits, and sobriety — and your child’s odds improve.
Teens whose parents talk with them about safe driving
are far less likely to die in a crash, according to scientific research.
“Talk” does not mean simply saying, “drive safely.” It means in-depth
conversations about habits on the road. It means driving together and
coaching the teen’s driving style. It means insisting on a zero tolerance
for speeding. It means requiring seat belt use 100 percent of the time as a
condition for continued driving privileges. It means discouraging drunk
driving by knowing where your child is going, not condoning underage
drinking and offering to come and pick up your child if he ignores the other
rules and drinks alcohol.
In addition to the three fundamentals – buckle up, slow
down, drive sober – there’s one more thing parents can do to improve the
odds for their children and for the rest of us who share the road. Remove
distractions. Don’t permit your teen to talk on a cell phone while driving.
Don’t permit your teen to drive with friends during the first year or two –
this increases the crash risk greatly. Discourage your teen from
playing music so loud that he could not hear a siren. Remove the
stereo from the car if need be. And limit the amount of night driving during
the first two years to essential trips for work or school. Driving in the
dark is one of the major risk factors for teens.
"Teens whose parents talk with them about safe
are far less likely to die in a crash."
Can parents enforce these restrictions in the real
world? Well, that depends on how hard you work at it. Parenting is always
hard work. When your child was first born, your job was feeding and changing
diapers, and you were always there for the task, no matter what. Your child
doesn’t need you for that anymore; that job is done. Now, your job is
helping to keep your child alive during a vulnerable period of life.
You can achieve greater success if you start the day a
child gets her license. Set expectations and habits from Day One, and
your job as your child’s foremost driving instructor becomes easier. Will
there be lapses? Sure. But that shouldn’t stop you.
Will these parenting tools work? There’s a lot of
research that says they will work.
Nothing’s perfect, but these smart steps will greatly
increase the odds of managing the risks and keeping your child alive on the
I would rather greet your child with a warm hug or
handshake and not with a gloved hand feeling coldness in the chill of the