Keeping Tabs on Teens Behind the Wheel
Nonprofit Group Offers Stickers To Alert Parents
By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 9, 2002; Page B02
How are teenagers driving these days? Andrew Krumholz wants to know. Not for himself, mind you, but for their parents: He wants them to know every time their teenage son or daughter runs a red light, speeds or does something equally reckless behind the wheel.
As founder of the nonprofit group Safety 1st, Krumholz favors slapping a "How's My Driving?" bumper sticker, similar to those seen on big rigs out on the highway, on vehicles driven by teenagers whose parents want reassurance that their offspring are driving responsibly.
The red-white-and-blue labels give a telephone number and a unique code so that other drivers, should they see a teenager driving erratically, can call a Safety 1st operator who, in turn, will notify the teenager's parent or guardian. The reports go no further than that -- they are not, for example, shared with police or insurance companies, Krumholz said.
The aim of the new program, which costs $40 the first year and $25 to renew, is not to tattle on teenagers, but to reduce accidents and perhaps save lives, Krumholz said.
Teenage drivers are more likely than any other age group to have an accident, according to federal statistics. What's more, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers, and 75 percent of those fatal accidents result from driver error or reckless behavior, according to Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"Every parent gets nervous when their child takes the car out," said Krumholz, a former software manager from Vienna. "This is a chance for parents to find out about their teenagers' erratic driving and modify that before their kid becomes a statistic."
The program was launched last month, and so far, about a dozen families have signed up. On the advice of local police and safety experts, Krumholz is lobbying Virginia legislators to pass a first-of-its-kind law allowing judges to require that teenagers put a "How's My Driving?" decal on their bumpers as the penalty for a moving violation.
Krumholz also hopes to persuade insurance companies to give discounts to participating families.
Some lawmakers indicated they would be willing to look at the issue, while others said it sounded draconian. Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), for one, compared the program to branding teenagers with "a scarlet letter."
Some parents have concerns as well, saying the bumper stickers could send a message that they don't trust their children. And some teen drivers noted that prankish peers could abuse the program by calling in false reports.
Krumholz had a personal reason for founding Safety 1st: a close call on the highway last year that nearly cost him his life.
He was driving on the Capital Beltway when a teenage driver cut him off by inches. He swerved just in time but nearly crashed into the median wall. Overcompensating, he steered his vehicle back onto the road and just missed being hit by an 18-wheeler.
As the truck whizzed past, a rattled Krumholz looked up and noticed a "How's My Driving?" sticker on its rear. He found himself wishing that the teenage driver who caused the near accident had had such a sticker.
Earlier this year, Krumholz lost his job, a casualty of high-tech downsizing. Rather than look for another computer software managerial position, he decided to move ahead with his idea of starting a teen-driver accountability program. The company has a Web site -- www.safety-1st.org -- and has hired a team of phone operators.
Armed with bumper stickers and pamphlets full of grim statistics, Krumholz now goes around soliciting corporate sponsors and talking to parents at ceremonies where Virginia teenagers receive their driver's licenses.
Michele Jackson of Fairfax stopped by Krumholz's table at a recent ceremony with her 17-year-old son, Graham. She admitted to being a little nervous about her son getting behind the wheel.
"You want to trust your child, but a new driver may not be aware of his erratic ways," she said. "I think [Safety 1st] is a really good idea, especially if a child already has an offense. It could be a deterrent."
Her son shook his head in disagreement, pointing out that it's not just teenagers who might be bad drivers. "It's kind of unfair," he said. "If we have this on us, then all adults should, too."
In recent years, Virginia has been cracking down on teenage drivers. In 2000, with the fatality rate of teen drivers increasing in the state, Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) sponsored legislation raising the age for a learner's permit and a license and putting limitations on drivers younger than 18, including nighttime driving restrictions. The law took effect in July 2001.
Mims said Safety 1st "could have some merit because it's one more step to ensure that new drivers are conscious of their actions."
But Callahan said he was "skeptical whether [the program] would have any effect." And putting it in the hands of judges, he said, risked having it become "very draconian."
Matt McCauley, 17, of Vienna said he'd be embarrassed to have the sticker on his car. But his father, Brian, seemed interested in learning more about the program, especially because Matt has been involved in two accidents already, one of which was his fault.
"Anything that promotes safety is worth taking seriously; whether it's feasible, I don't know," Brian McCauley said. "Especially since the accident. . . . I'd like to know he's all right when he goes out."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company