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A Mother's Plea for Stricter Supervised Driving Laws

When my son turned twenty he finally decided he wanted to learn how to drive. Before then, mass transit had been too convenient. Only when he was at college, living off-campus, had he felt the need.

As an anxious mom, a shudder went through me when he passed his driving test after only ten lessons. When Ted had agreed to go to an affordable SUNY, we made a light-hearted promise. “Learn to drive, and we’ll let you have the family car.”  At the time, it seemed so far away.

But suddenly Ted had his license, and my husband, Phil, was determined to make good on out promise. “It’s too soon,” I wanted to scream. “He’s not ready.”  But I couldn’t justify my fear. “The only way you become a good driver is by driving,” everyone said. 

So we bought ourselves a new, used car and handed Ted the keys to our trusty 1995 Toyota. “Be careful,” I told him. “Don’t text and drive. Don’t talk on the phone, either. Please just put your phone in the back seat and forget it’s there.” 

Ted’s first few trips back and forth to school went smoothly, and I started to breathe again. Then one day Phil met me at the door with a terse statement: “Ted’s okay. The car isn’t.”

We quickly ascertained the facts. Ted had lost control of the car on a level stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. When pressed, he admitted that he’d switched his attention from the road to the iPod on the seat next to him. Finding himself on the shoulder, he panicked and swerved through the guardrail. I collapsed on to the couch; the thought of Ted fiddling with his iPod, all innocent, foolish desire to hear a new song was more than I could bear. 

When I called about the car the next day, the owner of the auto shop where it was towed told me I was lucky Ted was still alive. He went on gleefully to describe the damage—our car was in shreds, wrapped in ribbons of highway guardrail. 

My son could have died. It turned out that Phil and I had a fundamental disagreement about what had happened. Phil thought Ted had been ready to drive; this was an unfortunate event that no amount of additional lessons could have avoided. “The only way you really learn,” he said, “is by driving solo.”  When I talked about the accident at work, I found that my co-workers agreed.

“Every year in our town, a high school senior would die in a car crash,” one woman said. “All you could do was pray that it wouldn’t be your child.”

“Everyone totals at least one car,” said one co-worker flippantly. “My sister’s crashed three. But the only way you learn is by getting out on the road.”

How could people be so blasé about this? When it came to curfews, I’d talked to friends and neighbors before setting a policy for our children. Now I wondered that I had done so little research before letting Ted drive away in a lethal weapon.

Finally, I talked to a friend who lived in Maryland. She told me that she was also afraid of accidents—that was why she kept her son’s log so carefully. I found out that the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles requires teenage drivers to produce evidence of 60 hours of supervised driving time for teenagers. A quick visit to the DMV website for New York told me that my state’s requirements were just slightly less stringent, fifty hours of supervised driving time as opposed to sixty. It had never occurred to me to check for guidelines, and since Ted was twenty when he learned to drive, he’d been exempt.

The law may have considered Ted an adult, but wasn’t I still paying his college bills? Not to mention doing his wash and calling a doctor when he got sick. I checked on-line for confirmation of what I already suspected—that my twenty-year-old man-child lacked the judgment of a mature adult. I quickly found a study that proved that young people’s ability to exercise judgment isn’t fully in place until the mid-twenties. Auto crash statistics bear this out; in 2008 20- year-olds had 67% more fatal crashes per 100,000 drivers than twenty-five-year-olds.

Ted found the courage to get back on the road, but this time with Phil supervising. Several times, Phil had to utter a short, sharp correction, but gradually Ted improved his focus and learned how to handle more difficult situations. 
Surprisingly, a recent study by The Journal of the American Medical Association calls into question some of the reported value of supervised driving. According to The New York Times (Teenage Driving Laws May Just Delay Deadly Crashes, 9/14/11), the study found that while there were 1,348 fewer deadly crashes involving 16-year-olds, there were 1,086 more that involved eighteen-year-olds, a net improvement of only 262 deaths. Graduated licenses and supervised driving were once credited with reducing teen fatalities by as much as 30%.
“You see,” said Phil, maddeningly. “Supervision doesn’t work.”

But of course it does. When I think of the value of Ted’s life, a net improvement of 262 is a priceless benefit. If we want even more improvement, we should make the law stricter. If our brains aren’t fully developed until we’re in our mid-twenties, then the DMV should require supervised driving up until age twenty-one. 

Two years after the crash, Ted calmly slid behind the wheel of his new, old car. Of course I ordered him to drive safely, and of course I was grateful that the car did not even have a tape deck, much less an auxiliary cable for an iPod. But for the most part my calm matched Ted’s. This time I was certain there would be no deadly errors in judgment. Not because he’d learned by crashing a car, but because he’d had the right amount of supervised driving time. 

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