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The perils of teen driving and letting go

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I remember tucking their two premature bodies — each weighing less than five pounds — into the newly installed car seats in the back of the Toyota Corolla for the 12-minute drive from Holy Cross Hospital to our home in Silver Spring.

My husband drove the back roads because fewer cars meant lower chances of a collision, a lesser likelihood that another driver would grow angry at and aggressive with the car that crept along at five miles below the speed limit.

When we pulled into the driveway, it was with audible sighs of relief. Never again would a car journey with our sons be so fraught with anxiety and perceived peril.

That is, until you make the appointment for that once-sub-five-pounder to take his driving test.

Christopher has had his permit for the required nine months. We have spent time virtually every weekend driving. If I am to be fair, I have to concede that I no longer sit in the passenger seat not breathing, knuckles white, my foot depressing an imaginary brake. He has mastered changing lanes, highway driving, night driving, even driving in the rain. I am almost comfortable with him driving his brother and me almost anywhere we need to go. In an emergency, I would feel that he could get me where I needed to go.

In short, I was slowly — very slowly — moving toward acceptance of the idea of Christopher, having his driver’s license.

That is, until the release of two studies last month by the American Automobile Association and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety on the perils of teen driving.

The AAA study added new data to the long-proven fact that teens are the most dangerous drivers on the road. Specifically, the research found that the chances of a fatal accident increase by almost half when a 16- or 17-year-old driver has one teenage passenger. The risk doubles when the teen driver has two teen buddies in the car and quadruples when the teen passengers number three or more.

The Insurance Institute study found that teen deaths in automobile accidents have fallen since 1996, when tougher rules requiring graduated licensing for teen drivers were enacted. (Graduated licensing refers to requiring teens to have a set number of supervised hours of driving — generally about 60 — before they can get what is called a provisional license that imposes some restrictions, including on the number of minors in the car and on night driving.)

But it also reported that if states enacted tougher licensing rules, 500 deaths and 9,500 crashes involving teen drivers could be avoided each year.

When Christopher started the driver’s ed process, the thought of driving with him for 60 hours seemed daunting and interminable. At times during the last nine months, it has proved to be that — for both of us.

But is he a better driver at 16 than I was? Absolutely. Would I object if the state required him to get another 10 or 20 hours of supervised driving before he could take his license test? Absolutely not.

A friend whose son got his license within the past year told me she offered him this bit of wisdom before he took the test: “Failing the test doesn’t make you a bad driver, and passing it doesn’t make you a good one.”

I have warned Christopher that having his license isn’t likely to change his driving habits very much. He can drive just about anyplace we go as a family, but the notion of my tossing him the car keys and offering a cheery “be safe” as he, his brother and some buddies go off to the movies doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

“We know that carrying young passengers is a huge risk, but it’s also a preventable one,” said AAA Foundation President Peter Kissinger in presenting his study’s findings.

Oh, and did I mention that the other sub-five-pounder is finishing up his two-week driver’s ed course this week?

Here we go again.

Tracy Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week.

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