Teen Driving

Teen driving

Nearly every Tuesday for several years, I went to a Mom’s Club play group. All the moms had one baby, and then about two years later, we each had a second baby.

And though we’ve lost touch in recent years, major milestones bring us back together online. The latest one: They’re starting to drive!

That scream in the background is coming from me and all the other parents shocked by the idea of their baby — I mean teenager — behind the wheel of a large automobile.

The other play group babies live in Georgia, where, in exchange for passing a basic test, 15-year-olds are granted a learner’s permit. My blood pressure dropped substantially when I found out Kentucky makes kids wait until they are 16, so, thankfully, we’ve got another year.

But that also means we’ve got only another year! Time to look into safe driving issues, which all parents should review with their soon-to-be (or already) driving teenagers.

Only 25 percent of parents have had a serious talk with their kids about safe driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Perhaps those nonvocal parents don’t know that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 14- to 18-year-olds in the U.S., including nearly half of teen drivers involved in a crash, according to the NHTSA. In Kentucky, teenage drivers account for only 6 percent of the overall driving population, but they are involved in more than 20 percent of highway crashes and about 18 percent of fatal crashes, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet data shows.

Those findings are part of the reason Kentucky began its Graduated Licensing Program in 1996 and strengthened the law eight years ago. It means that drivers under age 18 do not automatically qualify for a full, unrestricted license and they are held to stricter scrutiny when driving.

At age 16, Kentucky teens can apply for a driving permit. For anyone under age 18, a parent or guardian has to sign the application, and applicants must have a “No Pass/No Drive” sheet signed by their school, which validates that they’re not flunking out and don’t have nine or more unexcused absences. Then they must pass vision and written tests to get the permit.

When driving, permit holders must have a licensed driver, age 21 or older, in the front seat. They can have no more than one unrelated passenger under age 20 in the car. (So, yes, they can drive with mom or dad and their younger siblings, but no, they can’t pile in a pack of friends.)

Oh, and parents should like this curfew clause: Driving is outlawed between midnight and 6 a.m. for everyone under age 18, except in “cases of emergency.” (And no, the official explanation of “emergency” doesn’t include a chips and salsa run or “the movie ended later than we thought.”)

Other regulations related to the permit include the 180-day rule. That’s the minimum amount of time new drivers have to practice at least 60 hours behind the wheel, including 10 at night. Parents have to sign off on this before their young driver can take the road test, which must be passed to earn an “intermediate” sticker for the permit. A four-hour safety class and another 180 days with no traffic violations are required before drivers can apply for a full, unrestricted driver’s license.

The NHTSA encourages parents to follow their “5 to Drive” teen safety campaign. It’s a checklist of five simple rules for drivers to follow when they hit the road: No cellphones while driving, no extra passengers, no speeding, no alcohol, no driving or riding without a seat belt.

A lot of those rules cover things that have been drilled into our heads for years. Kids are likely to understand the dangers of excessive speed and drunk driving. They know they should buckle up for safety. But cellphones and extra passengers — those are likely to be sticking points with teens.

Having friends in the car more than triples the risk of a fatal crash when a teen is at the wheel, according to a report in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. The NHTSA reports that teen drivers with peer passengers are more likely to become distracted, drive aggressively or too fast for conditions or engage in other risky behaviors while driving.

Safe driving advocates urge parents to model proper procedures behind the wheel — the “5 to Drive” rules don’t just apply to teenagers.

And perhaps you and your teen could sit down together to try one of the many online sites, such as itcanwait.com, that simulate how dangerous it can be to drive while speeding, texting, buzzed or otherwise impaired.

Find more information about the Kentucky’s Graduated License program.

- Mickey Gramig