A motorist a few cars ahead of me was catching the blues for driving the speed limit in the far left lane of a three-lane highway. Horns honked and bright lights flashed in an effort to get whoever was behind the wheel to speed up or move over. One driver passed the car and then made a dangerously sharp cut back in front of it, nearly causing a crash.
I admit to being rather impatient as well. But when my chance came to pass and show my displeasure, I noticed that the driver was just a teenager, 17 or so. What a cruel way to learn the rules of the road, I thought, feeling sorry for him and ashamed of myself.
This occurred not long after I'd written a column this month that, in effect, blamed inexperienced teen drivers for the recent increase in traffic deaths involving juveniles. Much of the feedback I received reflected agreement, but perhaps I should have paid more attention to those who wrote about adult drivers, like myself, who are not always the best role models on the road.
"As a grandfather, I have been driven many times by parents of small children to and from school, birthday parties, school events, etc., and observed with horror the following (all in the presence of children): Failure to stop at stop signs, running red lights, talking on the cell phone, drinking beverages, listening to loud music, looking at passengers while talking, tailgating, speeding, driving too fast under adverse conditions like rain," wrote Tibor Borsos of Chevy Chase. "No wonder children exposed to such habits will acquire them and follow them when they start to drive."
"As a pediatric emergency physician at Shady Grove Hospital, I often see firsthand the consequences of reckless behavior," wrote Julian Orenstein of Potomac. "I feel that one more way teens learn recklessness at the wheel comes from watching the driving habits of their parents. I am a frequent bicycle rider on the 'back' roads and I have had too many occasions to witness horrific driving habits of the moms and dads. On winding, two-lane, double-yellow-line roads, cars rush past me into oncoming traffic at speeds far in excess of posted limits, with absolutely no line of sight beyond the curve. . . . There is no doubt in my mind that the atrocious neglect of safety exhibited by our county drivers gets firmly imprinted on teenagers who mimic what they see."
In no way are these comments intended to implicate parents who have lost children in accidents. Cheri Kusterbeck of Washington, whose 19-year-old son, Steve, was killed in an automobile accident in 1989, reminded me that there is simply no guarantee that a son or daughter behind the wheel of a car, no matter how skilled, will make it home safely.
"Steve was driving on the Beltway and came up behind a street cleaning vehicle after he got into the left hand lane," she wrote. "He was not able to stop or change lanes. It happens so fast . . . "
Her advice to parents: "Always let [your children] know how much you love them and teach by being a good example. You just never know."
Chuck Hurley, a vice president with the National Safety Council in Washington, e-mailed information about "Road Ready Teens," a free driving guide and video game for parents and their teenage children.
"Parents play a critical role as their teens learn to drive," he wrote. " 'Road Ready Teens' gives parents tips and tools to safely ease teens into driving." The guide and game, he noted, are based on the best of graduated driver licensing principles proved to reduce teen crashes by up to one-third.
The game helps teens understand driving risks and the importance experience plays in becoming a safe driver. (Think of it as an antidote to video games that promote reckless driving, such as "Grand Theft Auto.") The safe driving guide and video game can be found at www.roadreadyteens.com. Who knows? Even experienced drivers might learn something -- like how to drive, for one thing, and to cut others a little slack.