My first born son turned 15 last week, 15 on the 15th, an event that began a countdown for me and I suspect for him as well: 365 days until 16, driving age.
I’m not hoping for that time to come too soon, for all the reasons you have been reading about in the papers recently. There was the accident last month in Freehold, in which three teenagers were killed; the sentencing of the young road rage driver in Hamilton, whose driving caused an accident that left his teenaged passenger paralyzed from the chest down; and the spate of reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and similar organizations citing the grim figures surrounding teenagers and driving. The bottom line: teenage drivers are involved in five times more fatal crashes than adult drivers. They are also more likely to speed, run red lights, and make illegal turns.
Couple that with the fact that drivers of any age tend to ignore safety checks of their cars (when was the last time you looked closely at the tread on your tires?), that drivers of any age can be distracted by cell phone conversations or the desire to change CDs, and you get a fairly dangerous mix.
In its six years of operation, U.S. 1’s sister publication in West Windsor and Plainsboro has covered three high profile auto accidents claiming the lives of teenage drivers or passengers.
When a driving instructor gave an overview of his course at one of the schools, the WW-P News sent a reporter to interview him. New Jersey, he explained, has joined other states in implementing a graduated licensing process for teenagers, so that brand new drivers are issued provisional licenses that limit their driving time and the number of passengers they can have with them in the car. But at least one other part of the state’s licensing process was a joke: The road test, he asserted, was not a road test at all at some Department of Motor Vehicle sites, but rather an exercise in caution on a closed course maintained by the testing agency.
When my kids (the other one is almost 13, not so far away from the dreaded 1-6) first started talking about driving I would tell them that they would not only have to pass New Jersey’s driving test, but they would also have to pass Dad’s special driving test. I was speaking figuratively back then, but given what I know now the words are becoming literally true.
I still vividly recall failing my first drivers’ road test. The examiner asked me to turn left from a one-way street on to another, two-way street. I made my turn from the middle of the one-way road, rather than getting as far as possible to the left. That one maneuver resulted in about five different “violations” in this man’s book. It was the first exam of any sort in my life that I failed. It delayed me getting my license by about six months and dampened seriously any cockiness I might have had behind the wheel.
All of which made an E-mail press release jump off the computer screen the other day. “New Safe Teen Driving Program can help reduce teen auto fatalities,” was the headline. The program is the brainchild of Ben Bulot of Biloxi, Mississippi, a 39-year-old business consultant who got the idea after watching two teenagers chatting on a cell phone while speeding away from a coffee shop.
Bulot discovered that companies that put “How’s My Driving?” stickers on the back of their vehicles (with an 800 number to call if you want to report bad driving) end up with lower accident rates. Bulot reasoned that the same might apply to teen drivers. So he set up a website, www.drivezebra.com, and printed up “How’s my driving?” decals with a custom ID number for each participant. The decals are reflective, and the ID number is big enough that most motorists will be able to take note of it. If you see a kid careening down the road or a pack of kids in a car careening down the road, you can visit the website, key in the ID number, and file a complaint that gets E-mailed to the young driver’s mother or father.
Bulot charges $65 a year for the membership, and includes a pamphlet on safe driving and a parent-teen “contract” that covers the issues that parents universally preach every time a kid reaches for a set of keys.
One of four kids growing up in New Orleans, where his father was a bellman at a hotel and his mother a stay-at-home mom, Bulot started driving when he was 15. “I remember doing fishtails, donuts, and all the crazy things young drivers do,” says Bulot, reached by phone on the eve of Mardi Gras. “And then when I was 16 or so I probably started drinking beer, as well. I was one of the lucky ones.”
Bulot has no kids of his own, but he knows enough about kids to say that lots of them would be embarrassed by the presence of a “How’s My Driving?” decal on their bumpers. I plan on checking back with www.drivezebra.com in a year or so, and will consider then the idea of signing myself and my kid up.
As I wrote in this space in a column of year-end reflections, I have reached a point where I am in no hurry for any amount of time to pass. While my son may disagree, I do hope that February 15, 2008, is a long time coming.