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Teen Summer Driving Safety

Summer vacation has washed onshore and tourists and locals alike will soon flock in waves to the coastline to soak in the rays of a true Floridian summer. This time of year is one of Florida’s busiest seasons, with more than 106 million visitors clogging state highways in 2015, according to statistics published through Visit Florida. Between graduation ceremonies, conventions, and the ever-growing theme park industry, Florida is a hotspot, with resident population alone surpassing New York state last year. With all these people, there becomes a need for heightened safety awareness on the road, particularly for Florida’s teenage drivers, our less experienced motorists.

On Sunday, February 6, 2011, Laura Grant and Eddie Culberhouse, 17 and 19 years old, respectively, became an unfortunate and tragic reminder of the importance of roadway safety. On their way to New Smyrna Beach with six friends, they sustained fatal injuries in a severe car accident and later succumbed to their injuries. The other passengers were injured but were not killed. Their story inspired the creation of the Always Wear Your Seatbelt foundation which seeks to spread awareness about the importance of driving responsibly and always wearing your seatbelt. According to the statistic published on their website,

“an average of 5,000 teens die in automobile related accidents each year. A major factor in the statistic is that as few as 38% of the teens wear their seatbelts. Not wearing a seatbelt during an accident makes you 30 times more likely to be ejected from the vehicle. It is the number one cause of death among this age group.”

Accident statistics published in 2015 in the Tampa Bay Times note that three Florida cities lead the nation in teen traffic deaths, with Orlando landing the number three spot, Jacksonville at number two, and Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater snagging top of the list. In the report, Debbie Carter, a spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, “said she doesn’t know why the area has so many fatalities,” saying “we do mock DUI crashes, seatbelt exercises, and our school resource officers talk to students. We are constantly trying to inform and enlighten kids to combat the problem.”

The solution, then, might lie within fostering healthy and habitual communication between teens and parents. It’s a good rule of thumb that parents always know where their children are; if they’re leaving the house, parents should always know where they’re going and make sure they can reach them when needed. The parent carries a greater responsibility than the school systems to encourage safe driving habits: obeying the speed limit, always wearing a seatbelt, remaining keenly aware of road conditions, and practicing good defensive driving.

Teens develop a herd mentality while driving, meaning their driving habits might change based on the influence of their friends; they might feel peer pressured to drive faster or drive more aggressively based on the behavioral examples set by their passengers. It’s important that the driver and passengers alike have a mutual understanding of what it means to be a mature driver; realizing the magnitude of being on the road and the inherent risk associated with getting behind the wheel is essential to creating a strong foundation for safe driving.

Communication also entails setting clearly-defined boundaries and strict guidelines for new teen drivers: restricting friends in the car after dark, setting mileage limits, requiring a brief text message when they’ve reached their destination, and a number of other rules which nurture their development as a motorist. The parent must use discretion when setting appropriate boundaries—some parents will encourage the idea of tracking their teen via GPS, others will not. Regardless, it is always important that the teen have an open line of communication and realize that breaking these guidelines will be met with consequences, including revoking driving privileges.

The Florida Department of Motor Vehicles issues a free comprehensive guide regularly revised and republished with the most up-to-date information on Florida road laws. While teens are tested on the information and it is practiced during the behind-the-wheel driving test, this information should be frequently revisited and reviewed. Parents should sit down with their teens and ask them questions, pose various scenarios, and sit in the passenger seat while they drive to ensure their road skills are of the quality necessary to drive on Florida’s hectic roads. Remember, most driving tests occur on a closed course and cannot substitute for true roadway experience—if they aren’t ready for their license after having their permit for a year, parents should use the permit’s restrictions to the advantage of providing their teen with the best education possible.

Remember, many of Florida’s drivers are not local: they are unfamiliar drivers who might abruptly change lanes with no signal or drive well under the speed limit to avoid missing their turn. This is the reality of the roadway and teens must learn to handle any situation and handle it calmly. Road rage and aggressive driving accounts for almost a quarter of road-related incidents.

According to the Associated Press and published in Oregon Live, U.S. traffic deaths rose sharply in 2015 following a slight decline the year prior. Mark Rosekind, a National Highway Traffic Safety administrator “suspects that texting and other distractions while using smartphones was part of the cause, as well as drunken drugged, and drowsy driving and increased driving by teenagers.” He goes on to urge people to “stop using their phones while driving; not to drink alcohol or use drugs; and to wear seat belts and motorcycle helmets.” In that same report, it is revealed that human decisions cause 94 percent of all crashes.

Teens are encouraged to develop a mental dead zone for their cellphones while they’re driving. This means that the cellphone should be put away and ignored during the duration of the drive; it should not be checked, handled, or used to optimize the driver’s roadway attention. In 2007 alone, 418 teen drivers were involved in fatal accidents attributed to a host of driving distractions: that’s 418 children, grandchildren, siblings, and human beings who succumbed to injuries sustained while merely driving to school, to work, or to the beach.

The DMV has published the following safety tips for teen drivers on their website:

  1. Keep Your Cell Phone Off
  2. Don’t Text
  3. Turn on Your Headlights
  4. Obey the Speed Limit
  5. Minimize Distractions
  6. Drive Solo
  7. Practice Defensive Driving
  8. Choose a Safe Car

There are a number of resources available online, including through Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine, which seek to help parents and teens manage the new driver in the family. Driving a car can bring feelings of freedom and independence, as well as encourage maturity and good decision-making, but this new-found privilege must be kept squarely in check. It is only when the community comes together as a whole, when all drivers are mutually aware of their responsibility on the road, that our highways will be a safer place for everyone to drive.

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