Colorado’s graduated licensing law is credited for a steep reduction in teenager deaths in auto accidents. The law, enacted in 1999 and then strengthened in 2005, created driver education requirements and age-based restrictions for young drivers.

Education, State Law Reduce Youth Road Risks

Your child has reached 16, is getting decent grades and acting responsibly, and for the umpteenth time you’ve heard the anguished words:

“But, Mom, Dad! All of the other kids have gotten their driver’s licenses!”

It’s time to give in, take your kid to the DMV, and start the process. But you need to be sure you’re ready to be the parent of a teen driver.

Parents think that their children will inevitably get into a car accident, that there’s nothing they can do about it, just as teenagers think they’re immune to the threat of wrecking, according to Susan Goldenstein, manager of prevention education and outreach at Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Child Health Advocacy Institute. The organization conducts teen driving outreach at Denver-area high schools.

Teens Disconnected From Leading Cause of Death

The first time giving the kids the car keys is a nerve-wracking experience, Goldenstein says. It’s because adults know the dangers of driving. Car accidents are the No. 1 cause of death for teenagers. Yet, she says, children think they are invincible and a serious or fatal accident can never happen to them. Parents can reduce the chances of an accident, however, by influencing their children and even themselves to be safer drivers.

Your Example Has the Most Influence on Them

Parents are the biggest influence on their children’s driving behavior, and the key to their success or failure in being safe drivers, Goldenstein says. That’s because teenagers will copy their parents’ driving styles and their safe or dangerous habits. If you speed or text while driving, then they’re likely to do the same. Your safe driving from Day 1 would be the best influencer, but if you haven’t been a model driver, then make a commitment to change and tell your kids you’re doing so. Then you’ll be able to worry less when they take to the street.

Teenage Passengers a Dangerous Distraction

More dangerous than texting while driving is the distraction of having friends in the car, Goldenstein says. Youths’ natural tendency to goof off and be rowdy doesn’t get left on the curb. The interactions distract their attention from the road on a cognitive level. No one can truly multitask. Even having an adult in the car or listening to the radio can diminish their focus.

Because young people don’t know how to safeguard against distraction, they’re at the greatest risk of crashing. If you need to text, adjust the radio, or get passengers to cool it, the best strategy is “to pull over to the side of the road and resolve.” Colorado enacted its graduated licensing law in response to a crash in 1999 when four teens died in a wreck while an inexperienced driver was at the wheel.

Marijuana Use by Teens a Continuing Problem

Despite the perceptions of many, driving while high is a real impairment, Goldenstein said, not mentioning that it is also illegal. Marijuana use creates delayed responses in users and should be viewed with the same seriousness as drunk driving. While the lack of data surrounding the drug’s effects on driving is still a problem, she expects changes in how authorities address the problem.

Colorado Graduated Licensing Law Reduced Teen Car Accident Fatalities

Goldenstein credits the graduated licensing law for a steep reduction in teenager deaths in traffic accidents. The law, enacted in 1999 and then strengthened in 2005, created driver education requirements and age-based restrictions for young drivers.

As a result, traffic deaths among 15-year-olds to 19-year-olds dropped by more than 67 percent between 2004 and 2011, according to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. In 2012, however, the state saw a 10 percent rise in teen road fatalities. More recent figures were not immediately available for this article.

The GDL law, as some call it, focuses on giving teenagers more road experience while minimizing the number of young passengers and providing strict consequences, Goldenstein says. Violate and you can lose your license.

Consider Having a Parent-Teenager Driving Contract

Goldenstein, the Colorado Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all encourage families to create rules and mutual understanding by signing and enforcing a safe-driving contract. In them, teen drivers agree to drive safely or face stiff consequences, such as losing driving privileges for a week or longer.

Here are a few suggested teen-driving contract ideas from government agencies:

  • Passenger Restrictions: Young drivers agree to abide by Colorado’s passenger-restriction laws. The drivers will have no passengers under 21 in the first six months and no more than one passenger under 21 for the first year. Only one passenger can ride in the front seat. Never try to drive to impress your friends.
  • Wearing Seatbelts: Teen drivers agree to always wear a seatbelt and to require their passengers to wear them.
  • Obeying Curfews: State and local regulations impose curfew hours (Colorado’s curfew is midnight to 5 a.m.). Parents and young drivers should decide when earlier be-home-by hours are appropriate and agree to them.
  • Checking In: Teen drivers agree to check in with their parents before they go anywhere and to let them know when they’re returning and who’s coming for the ride.
  • Avoiding Alcohol and Drugs: Teens agree never to use alcohol or drugs while driving and to never ride with someone who has been using them. If teens ever feel they are impaired in any way, then they should call home for a ride. Parents, be thankful your kids have good sense and go get them.
  • Distractions: All drivers, not just the young and inexperienced, should agree not to talk or text on cell phones while driving. They should agree not to eat while driving, and not play with the radio, CD player, or any other entertainment device while driving. Promise you’re not going to wear headphones while driving. Promise never to let your passengers get rowdy while you’re driving. The solution, just as with cell phones and texting, is to pull over until things are calm.
  • Driving While Tired or Emotional: Teen drivers agree not to drive while they are overly tired, excited, angry, or sad. Installing daily habits that encourage better sleep could even be a part of your plan.
  • Obeying Traffic Laws, Respecting Others: Everyone should agree to obey all traffic laws and rules of the road. No, it’s not OK to speed just a little. Drive carefully and be courteous to other drivers, bikers, and pedestrians.
  • Carrying Important Documents: Teen drivers agree to always carry the essentials — their driver’s licenses, car registration, proof of insurance, and emergency information — when they drive.
  • Paying for mistakes: Young drivers should agree to pay for any traffic citations or parking tickets.

Parental Involvement Above All

Goldenstein told KUSA Channel 9 reporter Bobbi Sheldon that parental involvement is critical to teen driving safety.

Goldenstein said:

“Spend as much time as possible supervising their driving while they have a permit. The law requires teens to log 50 hours with a parent or supervisor during the year they hold a permit. It should be much more. … They need to drive every time you both go somewhere. … Pay attention to your teen. Having a teen driver myself, I’ve learned that this is priceless quality time with them.”

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