One rite of passage most teenagers look forward to and parents dread is learning how to drive. Car crashes are the No. 1 killer of teens by far, on the order of five times more than poisoning or cancer. Does that mean you should scare the daylights out of teens to encourage safe driving? Traditional driver education classes tend to do exactly that, with gruesome videos and photos of fatalities and smashed-up cars.
But experts from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the auto insurance company State Farm say this is not the way to go about teaching kids to be safe drivers. The hospital and the insurance company plan to launch a campaign in mid-September focusing on the positive. They call it "Celebrate My Drive."
Pediatrician Flaura Koplin Winston is scientific director for the Center for Injury and Prevention at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a public health researcher with expertise in adolescent health and safety. She says scare tactics may grab attention but do nothing to help build the skills needed to actually learn how to drive safely.
The best way to get people to adopt positive behaviors, she says, is to provide positive reinforcement. "Its much easier to teach somebody to do a behavior, make them feel they can master a behavior," than it is to tell people what not to do, she said.
"Just think about it with teens," says Winston. "We're always telling them, 'Don't do this' and 'Don't do that.' Scaring them about what would happen if they did do that bad thing is not a way to get them to do something good."
One way to keep things positive is to help kids gain mastery over each driving skill they learn. It will make them feel competent — and you less nervous. That process is slow, says Chris Mullen, State Farm's director of technology research and a former engineer with major car companies.
"Let's start with a parking lot and everything you need to understand and before we even put car into drive," Mullen says. "We'll go over safety behaviors like wearing seat belt, checking around car, making sure you're ready to take off."
Then practice each skill: how to stop, start, drive straight without swerving. Practice, practice, practice says Mullen, before moving on to the next step.
"You might decide you want to try a neighborhood, so you plan a route around the neighborhood, make sure you put in some left turns, cover some things you haven't covered yet. This is a great chance to practice hazard awareness," Mullen says, adding that 43 percent of teen crashes are caused by a failure to recognize hazards.
Take, for example, a bouncing ball in the street. "You need to stop," says Mullen, because "there's probably a kid coming behind it." New drivers, says Mullen "may not even know how to scan the periphery, they don't know how to look from side to side on the roadway; they're just trying their best to focus on the road ahead."
State Farm has developed online tools — one for teens called Road Aware and one for parents called Road Trips — to help teens develop scanning skills and help parents plan practice goals. The tools are available to anyone, not just State Farm customers.
Over the past decade, many states have adopted laws that build on the notion of gradual learning. Some states don't allow teens to drive after 8 or 10 p.m. or to carry teenage passengers. Since laws like this have been enacted, teen crashes have decreased dramatically. They decreased most in states with the strictest laws.
Research shows when a new driver has one other teenager in the car, the risk of a fatal crash doubles. Add more teenagers and the risk goes up by five times. The good news: Teens are at their lowest lifetime risk of getting into a crash as a learner with a parent sitting in the passenger seat, according to Winston. So, "stay in the learner phase as long as possible," says pediatrician Winston, "because that is the safest time for your teen."
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
A rite of passage most teenagers eagerly anticipate and many parents dread is learning how to drive. Car crashes are the number one killer of teens. That's a number often used to scare teens into driving safely. Now a hospital in Philadelphia and a major auto insurance company have launched a campaign against scare tactics. They say staying positive is the best way to teach kids to drive.
NPR's Patti Neighmond has more.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: This is what driving means for 16-year-old Jack Buckingham.
JACK BUCKINGHAM: I'm always, like, getting rides from other people and I'm just kind of excited about, like, being able to get places by myself.
NEIGHMOND: For his mother Colleen it's about being...
COLLEEN BUCKINGHAM: Terrified.
NEIGHMOND: Which pretty much sums up how most teens and parents feel about driving. Excited teenager, worried parent. That worry is warranted, says Chris Mullen, an official with the insurance company, State Farm.
CHRIS MULLEN: Car crashes are the number one killer of teens by far.
NEIGHMOND: And the risk of a fatal crash is at its highest in the first six months after a teenager gets their license, which is why drivers ed classes often include graphic re-enactments of fatal crashes.
But do these scare tactics really work? No, says pediatrician Flaura Koplin Winston, who researches injury prevention at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
FLAURA KOPLIN WINSTON: We're trying to get teens to start down a path of a lifetime of safe driving; that's really what we want them to do.
NEIGHMOND: And scientists who study human behavior say the best way to get people to do good things is positive reinforcement, an approach Winston says also works for learning to drive.
WINSTON: It's much easier to teach somebody to do a behavior, and for them feel that they can master that behavior. It makes them feel good about it; rather than to tell someone what not to do. I mean just think about it, in some many other ways with teens, we're saying don't do this, don't do that, and scaring them about what would happen if they did do that bad thing. That's not really a way to get someone to actually do something good.
NEIGHMOND: Take for example the biggest culprit in distracted driving: cell phones. You could say don't ever talk or text while driving, you could show gruesome photos of a crash, or you could say...
WINSTON: If you turn your cell phone off while driving, you're able to pay better attention to the road. People will think that you care about them if you turn the phone off. So, that's a positive message.
NEIGHMOND: Another way to keep things positive, help kids gain mastery over each driving skill they learn. It will make them feel more confident, and you less nervous. But skill building is a slow process, says State Farm's Mullen. Think of it like baby steps, one at a time.
MULLEN: Let's start with a parking lot and everything you need to understand. And before we even put the car into drive, we'll go over safety behaviors like wearing your seatbelt and checking around car, making sure you're ready to take off.
NEIGHMOND: Then practice each skill: how to stop, start, drive straight without swerving. Practice, practice, practice, says Mullen, before moving on to the next step.
MULLEN: You plan the route around your neighborhood, you might make sure you put in some left turns, for example.
NEIGHMOND: And because statistics show that a teenager is at the lowest risk of having an accident when a parent is in the passenger seat, it may be a good idea to take advantage of that, like Colleen Buckingham did when her oldest son, Jimmy, got his license.
BUCKINGHAM: You know, on a day that was snowing, we'd have to drive to school, I'd let him drive. As hard as it was for me to sit in that car, I think I needed to take those steps so he could learn. We live in a suburb. They go to school in the city. So every morning he was driving in traffic, in rain.
NEIGHMOND: Exactly the kind of different conditions all new drivers need to know. Over the past decade, many states have adopted laws that build on the notion of gradual learning. Some states don't allow teens to drive after eight or ten at night or to carry teenage passengers.
Research shows when a new driver has one other teenager in the car, the risk of a fatal crash doubles. Add more teenagers and the risk goes up by five times.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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