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Parents Hold The Key to Safe Driving

By Donna Britt
Friday, December 3, 2004; Page B01

Now that the painful subject of teenage traffic fatalities is back in the news, Phil Berardelli wants moms and dads to consider the obvious:

"Parents would never say to a child who wants to play the piano, 'I'll buy you six lessons and then you give a concert.' They'd never tell a kid who wants to play soccer, 'I'll take you to six practices and you'll be ready for the pros.' . . . Such activities require an investment of a lot of time and money."

But when the same kid wants to drive -- "The most dangerous thing he or she can do in ordinary life," Berardelli says -- many parents' reaction is entirely different:

"Take six hours of driver's education. And here are the keys to the car."

Six hours of behind-the-wheel professional instruction is required for Maryland 16-year-olds to test for a driver's license (that number is doubled in Virginia; the District doesn't require driver's-ed courses).

Six years ago, Todd Waymon of Silver Spring learned how dumbfoundingly inadequate such limited training can be. His son, Matthew, 16, Matt's classmate Irn Williams, 16, and John Francis Wert, a 40-year-old father of three, were killed when the teenage driver of the speeding Subaru Outback that the youths were riding in lost control, smashing into Wert's pickup.

Six years later, Waymon sometimes runs into Matt's old pals -- all young men now. "They're moving right along," Waymon says wonderingly. As for Matthew, "I guess, what, he'd be 22 now," he adds in a voice so pained that listening feels intrusive.

Some things a mother or father never gets over, as the parents of the more than 7,000 U.S. teenagers who die yearly in car accidents learn. Since September, accidents involving teenage drivers have killed 17 people in the Washington area, emphasizing the limited effectiveness of current systems -- including driver education courses -- in reducing fatalities.

Such deaths might be "news," but they're hardly new. In 1994, Berardelli, now an editor at United Press International, wrote a freelance article urging parents to take a more hands-on approach to drivers education after a drunken Bethesda girl, 16, killed herself and a friend and gravely injured two pals when she crashed her just-purchased BMW. Soon afterward, he wrote the handbook, "Safe Young Drivers: A Guide for Parents and Teens" (for more information, go to www.safeyoungdrivers.com).

Ten years later, teenage driving fatalities are rising, not dropping. In the 20 months that the United States has been at war in Iraq, Berardelli points out, 1,259 Americans have died in the conflict. "In that same period, 10 times as many teens -- more than 11,000 -- have died violently on our highways."

Preventing many teenage car accidents requires two things, Berardelli says. One is for states to raise the minimum age at which teenagers can obtain permits and licenses. Maryland youngsters who are 15 years, 9 months old can obtain learner's permits; Virginia teenagers can get them at 15 1/2. In the District, the minimum age to get a permit is 16. Experts say any age younger than 16 is too young.

The other treatment for teen driving fatalities: "For parents to be parents," Berardelli says. That means refusing to rely on training schools to teach your child and "being brave enough to go out in rain, snow, every condition and drive with him." It means not handing over the keys just so you can stop chauffeuring your teenager. Berardelli points out, "You spend 16 years nurturing a child. Why place her, inadequately trained, behind the wheel of a powerful, dangerous machine?"

Berardelli can't believe how many parents ask him: "My kid's almost 16 and isn't ready to drive. What can I do?" When he responds, "Don't let him drive," they just look at him.

Across the United States, parents must sign permission papers for their teenagers to obtain learner's permits, and for their under-18 offspring to get full licenses. At some point, many parents decided they had to give their kids permission to drive. Driving became a teenager's God-given right, not a parent-approved privilege.

Parents' fear of saying "no" is killing their children.

"Every parent does a lot of arguing with [his or her] teenager -- about clothing, friends, music," Berardelli says. But when it comes to driving, "your kid cannot do a thing, legally, without you."

So parents secure enough to withstand their teens' sullenness or screaming will tell them, "You're not ready to drive," Berardelli says. He understands -- he made one of his own two daughters wait until 18 to get her license.

"She was extremely angry," he acknowledges. Even after getting her license, the daughter got into several fender-benders. "But if we hadn't waited," he says, "it could have been a lot worse."

Waymon knows how much worse. In Matt's honor, he and his wife, Lynne, helped create COA-MATT (Coming of Age -- Matthew's Advanced Teen Training), a Washington Ethical Society-based program that provides outdoor adventures and mentoring to teenagers and coaching to parents.

To Waymon, properly training teenagers to drive varies little from properly training them for life.

"It's a matter of parents teaching kids to fly," he says. "You don't just boot them out of the nest."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company