- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2000

Being the parent of a teen-ager is not easy, as anyone who has been through it can tell you. The teen-age years are a time of experimenting, testing and pushing the limits.

But when it comes to driving, parents must not let teens push those limits, experts say. Parents must be involved actively in the teaching process and set rules for their teens the lives of their children depend on it.

Phil Berardelli, the father of two daughters and author of "Safe Young Drivers: A Guide for Parents and Teens," recommends postponing the trip to get a learner's permit until you decide your teen is really ready. Remember, without parental consent, no teen under age 18 can drive.

"The best thing you can do to ensure their safety is not to let them have the car until they are 17. They have one-third of the risk of death if they start at 17," he says. "Our own state of Virginia has lowered the age to 15. My basic advice to parents is you have to take charge of this. It's the most important thing you can do for your teen [driving is] the most dangerous thing they can do."

He says the six hours of professional behind-the-wheel driver's education required by Virginia law "is totally inadequate I recommend 100 hours behind the wheel."

Mr. Berardelli says he finds a great deal of indifference among parents and feels they should "step up to the plate and take full responsibility." As part of taking this responsibility, he says, parents must enforce a no-passengers rule and also must not allow their teen to ride in a car driven by another teen.

"This is a public health crisis nothing kills teens more often than a car crash," Mr. Berardelli says.

What can parents do to help their teen-agers safely through learning to drive? Mr. Berardelli makes these recommendations:

• Accept the responsibility for teaching teens to drive.

• Take parental authority seriously.

• Spend time teaching your teen safe driving habits.

• Establish rules and put restrictions on your teen-ager.

"The one thing about this is that if you commit to the time, what you will also end up doing is re-bonding with your child. It's a very healthy thing for parents to do," Mr. Berardelli says.

Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA-Mid Atlantic, says the mix of teens and driving is still dangerous. "The issue is largely teens being teens and how do you protect them from themselves?" he says.

Mr. Anderson says three factors come into play in teen accidents: poor judgment, risk-taking and immaturity.

In addition, he says, "You have the group psychology of teens where peer-pressure acceptance is so important that as a result, when you put a couple of other teens in the car, it becomes a party barge."

AAA promotes a graduated driver's licensing system, in which teens must pass three stages to earn a full license, and it is working to promote passage of such programs in state legislatures.

AAA is proposing a teen licensing program developed by experts who believe it can save teen lives, License to Learn: A Safety Program for New Drivers. AAA also recommends nighttime and passenger restrictions to help save teen-agers.

"Please remember that for 6,400 families last year, when that parent threw the kid the keys to the car, it was the last time they saw the kid alive," Mr. Anderson says.

"Experience is the big factor," says Joe Rogers, an instructor at Keith's Driving School in Northern Virginia. He says the six hours of required behind-the-wheel instruction is "to get the student their basic skills to get their driver's license."

He says he has parents who keep log books and keep an eye on everything. "Those are the parents that I like to see they have an interest in what their children are doing."

Unfortunately, he says, there are other parents who just want their teen "to get their license as quickly as possible."

Larry Blake of the Northern Virginia Driving School in Falls Church has been teaching teen-agers to drive for 48 years.

Mr. Blake advocates parental involvement and says the more the parent drives with the student, the better driver the teen will be. He also says increasing the required behind-the-wheel time beyond six hours "would not be a bad thing."

Part of the curriculum at Mr. Blake's school is defensive driving teaching teens how to stay out of situations that can cause problems, such as following other cars too closely and not pausing before entering an intersection when the light turns green. He also advises parents to enforce no-speeding rules.

Mr. Blake says, "Absolutely no passengers one is too many teen-agers have a short attention level. One thing that's tough to do is to get into a young person's head how quickly an accident happens."

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