Friday, November 9, 2001

The daughter of a friend drove her father and her friend to lunch the other day, both equally proud: she of her brand new driving license, the parent of the way she used her turn signals, looking both ways at stop lights, and pulling into a parking lot without smiting the curbing with the rear wheels.
The daughter turned legal age, as did her friend, a few months earlier. Both had now acquired the essential rite of passage out of childhood by getting a driver’s license. They now spend their time driving to each other’s houses. They’re so excited.
And, yes, the father answered my question: She is a good driver. She pays attention; she executes well. And, he says, she is aware of the dangers.
I didn’t say so, but I wondered how aware she can really be at 16. Of course, she has been in and around cars all her life, but passenger experience counts for little when it comes to actually holding the wheel.
And now she has a few weeks of driving to her friend’s house and chauffeuring daddy to lunch. All benign.
She is aware of the dangers insofar as she has heard of late-night crashes on prom night and a cousin who several years ago lost an arm when he drove his mother’s minivan, filled with friends, into a ditch. His driver’s license was then just slightly older than hers is now.
Parents must greet this rite of passage with mixed emotions. Pleasure at their child’s delight, for one, and the acquisition of some new freedoms themselves from constant jitney service to teen activities. Although my friend didn’t say it in so many words, I could hear the concern behind the pride. He reads the newspapers; he knows the statistics of the disproportionate number of teen crashes and fatalities. One set of worries ends, and another begins.
Researchers have recently announced evidence that there is an actual difference between the brains of teen-agers and those of adults.
The authorities suggest that this difference can affect the ability to discern the connection between actions and outcome. Therefore, youngsters might commit rash acts uncensored by thought with disastrous results.
That, and lack of the experience on which to base thoughtful actions, can make for some worrisome times for parents. Whatever the case, it is up to those parents to help bridge the gap from the moment a teen is state sanctioned to drive and the time when mature judgment has evolved. (Not that all adults reach that shore themselves.)
Here are some suggestions for parents of teens with fresh licenses:

Put guidelines in writing: In conference with your new driver, create a contract laying out the rules for use of the family car (and for driving with others). Make clear that driving is a privilege that becomes a right only within observance of the rules. Agree on the consequences of any failure to follow these rules.

Establish responsibilities for use of the car: Who is to see that tires are properly inflated, the oil and other vital fluids are checked and the gas tank full?

Alcohol: Whatever your tolerance may be (wine with dinner, with parents present, perhaps) allow no leeway when it comes to driving. No riding with drivers who have been drinking, no passengers who have been drinking and no alcoholic beverages in the car, open or unopened. Establish early that alcohol and cars are not an acceptable mix.

“Graduate” the license: In some states, systems of graduated licenses exist. Establish your own system anyway gradually increasing the privileges for your young driver as time and compliance dictate. Transgressions throw the process back to Square One.

Some levels: Solo (or with an approved adult) only on designated trips, such as to school or work or household errands. An upgrade to pleasure trips. To carrying one other teen. To carrying two or more teens with a designated adult. To night driving. To trips out of town.

Continuing education: Take check drives with your teen. Make notes and discuss them afterward. And turn the tables have your teen check-drive your driving. For a special occasion, give your teen a course in car control or high-performance driving. They can range from inexpensive to pricey. For such courses, see the ad section of car magazines. For a real treat, go along. Learning should never stop.

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