Parents of teen drivers need to know more

By Joan Hunt
Connecticut - posted Thu., Oct. 24, 2013
Tim Hollister, who lost his son in a teenage driving accident, has written a book to help other parents learn more about protecting their teen drivers. Photo contributed. - Contributed Photo

The average car driven in the U.S. weighs about 4,000 pounds. The amount of reaction time the driver of a car going 60 miles per hour has on the highway is about the blink of an eye. Even for an adult who has been driving for decades, that is often not enough. For inexperienced teen drivers, the results can be devastating.

Connecticut parent Tim Hollister knows all too well the heartbreak, the numbing self-doubt and the endless grief that accompanies the teenage driving experience gone wrong. When his 17-year-old son Reid died in a one-car crash in December 2006, he had only had his license for 11 months. “He went out on an unauthorized joy ride and the crash was the result of being over the speed limit on a road that he did not know,” said Hollister.  He also believes that his son’s inexperience with how to handle a skid contributed to the accident.

Initially, Hollister said the family performed the cliché of picking up the pieces. “Stabilizing everybody’s emotional state took a year,” he said, as each person in his or her own way figured out how to go on. From the beginning, Hollister focused on the fact that he had done everything he was supposed to do to prepare his son to drive, including giving him more than the required hours of on-the-road instruction – but still his son was dead.

On the heels of Reid’s death came a year when at least seven other teens died in Connecticut car crashes. As Hollister read about these tragedies, he became more and more convinced that the literature available to parents nationwide “makes the assumption that teen drivers will start on day one that they are eligible – usually their 16th birthday – and a parent’s only job is teaching them how to drive a car. Missing was the explanation of why teen driving is so dangerous and, secondly, what parents can do before their kids get behind the wheel to prepare them.”

This became his mission. Hollister launched a blog in 2009, and by 2011 more than one traffic safety organization came to him to suggest that he had enough material on the blog to write a book – and so he did. “Not so Fast: Parenting Your Teen Through the Dangers of Driving” (published by Chicago Review Press, Inc. ISBN 978-1-61374-872-5) came out this year. It is a book that every parent of a teenage driver should read before the rubber hits the road.

“First is to understand the difference between purposeful driving and joy riding,” says Hollister. Purposeful driving, he said, means the teen has a destination, a specific route to travel and a reason to be there on time (if late to work, the teen will lose pay, if late to practice, the teen may not be allowed to play in the next game). “Joy riding is multiple teens in the car with no particular destination, where we see misconduct, peer pressure and risk-taking.”

Of the eight Connecticut fatalities from teen driving accidents this year, six of them were the result of joy riding, Hollister pointed out.   “Car keys are a very tangible and not very difficult form of leverage,” said Hollister. Parents should be the last line of defense before their young drivers pull out of the driveway, although sometimes it is difficult to ascertain if they are in the best shape to get behind the wheel.|

“Fatigue is the hardest factor for a parent to determine,” said Hollister, who cautions that drowsy driving statistics are frightening. Monitoring and controlling electronic devices is another important parent prerogative, he said, and one that must also be modeled by parents in order to be effective. “One line in my presentation is, ‘If you have a dashboard mounted interactive screen and you are updating the page while driving, you will have a hard time telling your teen not to text while driving, because you are doing it.’”
At present, Connecticut has some of the strictest teen driving laws in the country. After Reid’s death and the following rash of teen fatalities in 2007, then-governor Jodi Rell convened a study task force, and she appointed Hollister to serve on that group.
“We traveled to high schools across the state and appeared on statewide television,” he recalled. They got input from police, psychologists, doctors, nurses, prosecutors, judges, school principals, driving instructors, other bereaved parents and more. 
The result was a law passed in 2008 that tightened up restrictions and imposed stricter penalties for disobeying the laws. Parents are now required to attend safety classes with their teens, to learn about the dangers teen drivers face. In the intervening years, Connecticut statistics have improved. But this year there have been six fatalities in the ReminderNews readership area. According to South Windsor Police Lieutenant Scott Custer, speed was a factor in all or most of them.

“At 60 mph, a car travels 88 feet per second,” he said, adding that it takes a half-second to identify the danger and then the driver has to execute braking. “So in those two seconds it took you to identify the danger and apply the brakes, you have already traveled 160 feet at that speed... It takes 120 to 180 feet to go from 60 mph to zero.” He said that is a huge problem for an inexperienced driver, in addition to the fact that teen drivers tend not to anticipate road conditions.

Custer, in whose town a horrific Memorial Day weekend accident claimed the lives of two teens this year, said the severity of damage and injuries is greatly impacted by the speed at which the car is traveling. “Roadway features and intersections are taken into account when setting speed limits, to give drivers time to react,” he said. Custer said police still routinely see teens texting or talking on their cell phones while driving and that defensive driving is not given the importance it once was – but it should be. He also agreed that parents must be good role models for teen drivers.
Note: Part II will appear in next week’s edition.

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