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Originally published Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Training — not age — the key to making teens great drivers

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has issued a report calling on states to raise the minimum driving age to 17 or 18. While I share the...

Special to The Times

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has issued a report calling on states to raise the minimum driving age to 17 or 18. While I share the IIHS's concern over the staggering number of 16-year-olds — as well as 17-, 18- and 19-years-olds — who are injured or killed in car collisions every year, I disagree that the problem is age.

With up-to-date driver training, more hours of careful behind-the-wheel practice and effective parental involvement and role modeling, 16-year-olds can be excellent drivers.

Many of us remember drivers ed as a combination of tedious classes, outdated films and unnerving behind-the-wheel sessions. The instructors were usually our shop teachers, our coaches or whoever could be talked into doing the job.

We learned the shapes and colors of road signs; we learned how to brake without making everything fall off the dashboard; we learned the skills we needed to pass the road test and get a license.

But we weren't taught to master the complex, demanding skills that a life of collision-free driving requires. We certainly weren't challenged to think very hard about how we would handle peer pressure or avoid common risks.

The basic structure and content of drivers education in the United States has not changed since it was first developed in the Eisenhower administration, so it's no surprise that the rate of teen-driving fatalities has not decreased since then. Our roads are much more complex today than they were 50 years ago. We're preparing 21st-century teens to drive in a mid-20th-century world.

It's not that age — more precisely, inexperience — doesn't play a role in the number of 16-year-olds involved in collisions. But effective training and parent involvement can greatly reduce those statistics. Parents generally are very lenient in the first few months when it comes to placing restrictions on their teen's driving. Ninety percent of parents allow their new teen driver to drive in the dark. Seventy-seven percent allow their teen to drive with friends in the car.

Yet, according to a 2002 A. James McKnight study referenced in the Journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention, driving in the dark and driving with friends are two of the top four behavioral and environmental factors contributing to teen crashes. The other two are distractions and weather.

Well-intentioned parents place some restrictions on their teen's driving but not necessarily the ones that will keep their teen safe. Parents have misconceptions about what the real risk factors are.

A 2005 study conducted by the Allstate Foundation found that parents believe the top risk to be impairment due to alcohol or drugs. The McKnight study, however, found that the No. 1 contributing factor in teen car collisions — almost a quarter of them — is distractions: talking on a cellphone, texting, eating, changing the radio station and all the other activities teens engage in when they should be focused on driving.

Impairment due to alcohol and drugs was the No. 1 contributor in only 2.4 percent of car collisions involving 16-year-old drivers.

I recently attended a driving class. The teacher asked the students to respond in writing to this statement:

"There is no point in trying to teach responsibility to young drivers; they lack the judgment and experience to make good decisions."

Here's a sampling of the teens' answers:

• "If adults put time into helping kids drive rather than ranting about them, then kids would learn how to make good decisions and drive well."

• "They are stereotyping all kids into one group."

• "Young drivers, nervous and new to driving, probably feel more responsible than people who drive every day."

• "Adult drivers feel they can have coffee and talk on the phone while driving."

• "Adults assume we lack the ability to make good decisions and, therefore, don't teach us the important things required to make good decisions."

I spent a good part of a recent Tuesday listening to talk-show hosts and callers discuss the pros and cons of raising the minimum driving age to 17 or 18. People repeated over and over that 16-year-olds just aren't mature enough to be trusted on our roads. I wish I had heard more comments suggesting that we take a closer look at what we can do to better train our new teen drivers.

In the classroom, it was clear to me that the answer to the question of how to keep teens safe is not to raise the driving age but to take the time to inspire and to train them to be great drivers.

Kate Willette is the senior instructional designer at SWERVE Driver Training, a Puget Sound driving school whose mission is to change the way people drive.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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