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Cheer Up: It's Just Your Child Behind The Wheel

When it comes to learning how to drive, your teen is probably as harried as you are. Research shows that scare tactics meant to instill caution, though, are less effective than kind words.
When it comes to learning how to drive, your teen is probably as harried as you are. Research shows that scare tactics meant to instill caution, though, are less effective than kind words.

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."

PediatricianFlaura 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."

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Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.

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