- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2006

When the phone rang at 7:35 a.m. on a brilliant spring day in March, I knew it had to be one of two things. Either the mom down the block needed me to pick up her son for school, or something was wrong.

I was right. Something was wrong.

Katie and Betsy had left just five minutes earlier, 30 minutes ahead of the first-hour bell, on a dry and sunny morning. With safe conditions and plenty of time to make the 10-minute drive to school, they faced minimal risks. They were headed west, so even the sunshine wasn’t a factor.

But somehow, they had an accident. Not a big one — no one was injured, thank the Lord. The only casualty was the little Honda Accord we had purchased five months earlier. On the advice of many experienced parents, we had bought a car that could be considered “disposable.”

When Betsy called, her voice told me all I needed to know. She obviously was upset, but there was no terror, no panic to convey a serious injury. She told me where they were and then hung up to call the police.

When I reached the four-lane highway near our neighborhood, a line of cars about a quarter-mile long clogged the road. Virtually all of the drivers shot me dirty looks (and a few expressive digits) as I peeled past them in the left shoulder.

There’s no convenient way to say, “I’m the mother of the teenage driver who caused this backup.” I forged ahead.

When a police officer arrived, Katie was ready with her tearful explanation. “I think something happened with the brakes,” she said. “I slammed on them, but … …” She trailed off in a look of disbelief and bewilderment.

The officer and I looked at Katie and then at the road leading up to her steaming, crumbled front fender. No skid marks.

Clearly, she was correct. There was a problem with her brakes — she didn’t use them in time to avoid an accident.

(Just to be sure we had not permitted our daughter to take to the road in an unsafe vehicle, we asked a mechanic to confirm that the brakes worked before our former Honda made its weary way to the salvage yard.)

It took a day or two for the shock of losing the car to sink in. It also took about that long for me to get a true picture of what had happened on the way to school that morning.

Getting accurate information from teenagers is easy if you watch enough “Law & Order” episodes. You learn a technique for drawing out the facts: Keep asking the same question over and over, varying your phrasing just a bit. Gradually, you uncover details that explain everything.

This is how I found out about the ChapStick.

Katie had used ChapStick while sitting at a red light. She had dropped the top between the two bucket seats and had enlisted her sister to find it. Apparently Betsy didn’t take as much interest in finding the top as Katie would have preferred.

By the time they reached the next light, Katie’s focus was off the road just long enough to miss the cue conveyed by the brake lights in front of her.

Then, BAM. One minute she’s driving; the next we’re waving goodbye as the tow truck drags the car to “vehicular afterlife.”

It’s not as if we hadn’t discussed the potential for being distracted before Katie became a licensed driver. We told her how easy it is to divert your focus when you’re behind the wheel, and we made rules to help minimize distractions, such as no passengers other than her sister were allowed and the cell phone was not to be used while she drove.

We forgot to mention ChapStick.

Of course, we didn’t mention a host of things that might take her mind off the road, from biology tests and French assignments to birds in the air and cute guys walking along the roadway. We trusted that she appreciated how critical it is to pay close attention when you’re operating a machine as potentially dangerous as an automobile.

This week we finally replaced the third car in our driveway. We had decided not to rush into purchasing another auto — for one thing, it’s costly. We also waited until we felt sure Katie had absorbed all the wisdom her driving mishap offered.

She certainly isn’t alone in learning the pitfalls of inattention with firsthand experience. According to the nonprofit National Safety Council, a driver’s crash risk is at a lifetime high in the first 12 to 24 months of driving, and one estimate puts the number of new drivers involved in reportable traffic accidents at 14 percent.

Thankfully, the accident my daughter reported was just a fender bender, and better, the only fender bent beyond repair was ours. In the end, Katie’s inattention cost her merely the loss of a car at her disposal for a few months.

For some teens, the price of distraction is much higher. The NSC says traffic accidents remain the leading cause of death for Americans aged 15 to 20. Though teens account for just 7 percent of drivers, they make up roughly 14 percent of traffic fatalities.

Knowing these statistics — and many of the stories of grief behind them — makes me unspeakably grateful I have a reason to replace that first car.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 19 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks .com) or send e-mail to [email protected]

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