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Your teens behind the wheel? ‘Crashproof’ 'em!

In his new book, certified driving instructor Timothy Smith teaches parents how to communicate vital driving concepts to their kids. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

In “Crashproof Your Kids,” certified driving instructor and dad Timothy Smith has combined the collective wisdom of numerous experts to develop the Crashproof Plan: a series of behind-the-wheel exercises designed to improve your teen's driving awareness, behavior, and skill in a way that fits your schedule. Here's an excerpt:

Chapter 1
The Crashproof Plan Essentials Fortune favors the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur

Here's what happens in less than a second when a car traveling 55 mph hits a stationary object:

* 0.1 second: The front bumper and grille of the car collapse. If the car has an air bag, it has already inflated. * 0.2 second: The hood crumples, rises, and strikes the windshield as the rear wheels lift off the ground. The fender wraps around the struck object. * 0.3 second: The driver's legs jam under the dashboard and break, while the steering wheel heads for the driver's chest. * 0.4 second: The car's wrecked front end comes to a stop, but the car's rear is still rushing forward, and the driver's body is still traveling at 55 mph. * 0.5 second: If the car is not equipped with an air bag, the driver is smashed against the steering wheel, crushing arteries and lungs.
* 0.6 second:
The driver's feet are ripped out of their shoes. The brake pedal snaps off, and the car's frame buckles in the middle. Without an air bag, the driver's head smashes into the windshield. * 0.7 second: The passenger door rips loose, and the rear doors fly open. The front seat rams forward, pinning the driver further against the steering wheel shaft and dashboard, as the backseat breaks free and strikes the driver, who may already be dead.

Sometimes we need a jolting reminder of why effective driver training is so important and how shockingly fast lives can change forever.

We have a collective blind spot in North America when it comes to the importance of training teen drivers. The training requirements for driver licensure are much less comprehensive than for other, far less hazardous activities. Consider that in the state of Illinois, an apprentice plumber is required to put in a minimum of 1,500 to 1,600 hours of supervised training in the first year. To become a licensed journeyman plumber, someone will typically spend 6,400 hours of in-field training and 800 to 1,000 hours of classroom work over a four-year period.

Yet, with the possible exception of a cardiac arrest when a customer sees the bill, plumbers don't frequently kill or injure themselves or anyone else while fixing leaky pipes. It's clear that many of our training and licensure requirements are out of whack when compared to the risk factors associated with them.

Teen driver training requirements in the United States are also far less rigorous than in many other countries. In Germany, obtaining a driver's license is possible only after turning 18, completing 24 hours of class work, logging 20 hours of driving with a certified driving instructor, passing a rigorous test (which is failed by more than half the takers), and paying more than $2,000. Then you get a two-year probationary license.

More rigorous training has proven to pay off, too. In Australia, road safety organizations recommend at least 120 hours of parental-supervised driving, and Australian crash rates are substantially lower than in the United States. Swedish research indicates that teens with an average of 118 hours of supervised driving had 35 percent fewer crashes after licensure than those with an average of 44 hours of supervised experience. Sweden and Great Britain, which require comprehensive driver training, both have auto fatality rates less than half that of the United States.

Despite these facts, many parents assume that traditional driver education programs are sufficient and provide enough training to make a major impact on their teens' driving ability and future safety. They're dead wrong. With limited hours of classroom and behind-the-wheel time, only traffic regulations and the fundamentals of car control can be covered. We give our teens a handful of hours to learn traffic laws and drive with an instructor, and then we wonder why the injury and death rates are so high?

In addition, many high school driver education programs have been eliminated or have suffered substantial reductions in funding. The subsequent expansion of for-profit driver education schools has been distressingly haphazard, with little consistency in training, curriculum, and methods among the thousands of programs in this country.

Most programs have little time to focus on risk factors, defensive-driving skills, and accident avoidance — the very things that help keep our kids alive as they become better drivers. The other factors and pressures that have such an impact on driving behavior — social, parental, peer — are simply outside the scope and influence of driver education teachers.

It should be noted that many driver education teachers are skilled, caring individuals who do a job every day that most of us would need heavy sedation to do full-time. Their instruction is an essential first step in the learning process for teens. But it's only a first step. Far more time and effort are needed to develop safe, skillful drivers than is possible with the current level of resources dedicated to driver education programs.

While increased governmental and school spending on teen driver education would undoubtedly help, the primary responsibility lies with us, as parents. They're our kids and our precious heritage. And you have been granted clear authority: no child under 18 in this country can obtain a learner's permit or a driver's license without a parent or legal guardian's written consent.

The Crashproof Plan is part of the solution to increasing the effectiveness of teen driver training. It won't be a cakewalk if you do it right. You have years of ingrained driving habits, which may or may not be the best ones to impart to your teen. And, like many parents, you may have difficulty communicating with your teenager. (If you disagree with the last point, you are either exceptionally fortunate or perhaps slightly delusional.)

Your teen is not jumping up and down with joy at the thought of enduring a series of lectures from parents about driving, accompanied by that god-awful '70s and '80s music you listen to on the radio. Your son is pretty sure that within a couple of weeks, he will drive better than you do, and your daughter mostly wants you to give her the keys, let her social life blossom, and get the heck out of the way.

Finally, your calendar is jammed. You don't have big blocks of time to be allocated, no matter how worthy the cause.

Relax. You can do this. These are not insurmountable obstacles, and the Crashproof Plan is your secret weapon.

You don't have to be an experienced driving instructor to make the Crashproof Plan work. All it takes is time and proven methods. This book will provide the methods and break them down into manageable exercises that you can fit into a hectic schedule. If you think that there's just too much on your plate to do this, remind yourself of how valuable the investment will be for the well-being of your child and your family. Of all the things that compete for our attention, why wouldn't this be at the top of the list?

Consider for a moment all the time you already spend in service of your son or daughter. More than any other generation in history, we've added chauffeur to our parenting duties. We shuttle our kids back and forth to see friends; to take lessons in dance, piano, and Spanish; to attend games and practices for soccer, baseball, basketball, football, volleyball, softball, and tennis; and to parties, dances, meetings, and club functions. If we were paid chauffeur rates for all the running around we do for our kids, we'd all be retired and living in Fiji by now.

But teens don't die at soccer games and ballet practices. Take advantage of the time you might spend driving them back and forth by using it as part of your supervised driving time. Have your teen do the driving with you to his or her activities and to your regular circuit of the grocery store, pharmacy, and dry cleaner.

If you can find consistent days and times to set aside, you'll be much more likely to stick with the Crashproof Plan and make good progress. Sit down with your calendar and your teen's schedule, and plot out the time slots that will be the most available. Mark it on your calendar to reinforce the commitment. As competing events arise, treat the time you've set aside with the priority it deserves.

The prospect of reducing some of this burden by having our teens drive themselves to places as soon as they get their licenses can be compelling. Weigh those benefits very carefully, because crashes are actually most likely to occur in these local situations. Teens are more likely to be under time pressure, carry other passengers, and have their guard down a little on familiar streets. Shift the driving burden only as they prove ready, and be especially careful about additional distractions or weather hazards.

The purpose of the Crashproof Plan is to better the odds of teens surviving their driving, which too often ends up as a form of high-stakes gambling. Every time your teen gets behind the wheel, his or her hand of cards includes training, mood, car condition, weather, road hazards, and the behavior of other drivers.

The foundation of the Crashproof Plan rests on solid data, helping you determine the biggest payoffs for your time and effort, as well as suggesting how to work most effectively with your teenager. Some of the statistics leading to the creation of specific exercises support the conventional wisdom about teen drivers. Others may challenge your preconceptions and rearrange your priorities.

For example, the facts concerning what actually causes the most fatal crashes among young teen drivers are noteworthy. National publicity and awareness efforts have focused on teen drinking and driving, and rightfully so, but the percentage of fatal accidents involving teens and high blood alcohol is much lower than that of those caused by driver error. According to 1998 data released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver error is by far the single biggest contributor to fatal accidents, responsible for more than 80 percent of crashes involving 16-year-olds. The good news is that driver errors are often easier to reduce than a teen's tendency to speed, carry multiple passengers, or use intoxicants.

No one can ever be truly crashproof. Complete immunity from all the variables that come into play in an automobile crash is not possible. But there is no question that you can help make your teen far more crashproof than he or she is now. Being crashproof means understanding both the nature of driving hazards and how to react with appropriate responses and strategies. Teens do not intuitively understand many of the threats involved in driving, and they have little experience in assessing which ones they are most likely to encounter and which ones are the most dangerous. Perceived risk differs from actual risk, and your teen needs help differentiating between the two.

That's where you come in, to educate and equip them to deal with the risks they will encounter on the road. The Crashproof Plan suggests a variety of ways to help you accomplish this and incorporates exercises intended to develop instinctive responses to hazardous situations.

The goal is not so much to preach or teach in the classic student/teacher model as it is to give your teen a tangible, desired goal — increasing freedom and the privilege of driving an automobile on his or her own — with the specific steps needed to achieve that goal.

One of the most effective methods that many states have found to reduce the toll of teen crashes and deaths is to mandate graduated driver licensing (GDL) programs. GDL programs treat driving as a kind of apprenticeship, where increasing freedom and privilege are earned through a phased-in system of driving situations. GDL began in the United States in Florida in 1996, and now virtually every state and Canada use some form of graduated licensing, which typically restricts beginning drivers from the riskiest situations as their experience and skill develop.

The best GDL programs include what studies have shown to be most effective in changing teen driving behavior: specific instructions on skills, attitudes, and road etiquette, combined with adequate time and supervision, augmented by meaningful penalties and consequences.

The Crashproof Plan provides a framework for you to integrate these important elements. Equipped with methods proven to reduce crashes and deaths significantly, you can create your own improved version of a graduated licensing program specifically for your teen.

Consisting of four “gears,” the Crashproof Plan is designed to be a flexible outline and blueprint to help your teen develop skills in different situations and conditions by gradually increasing the levels of complexity, distraction, and challenge.

In First Gear, all road trips will take place during the daytime and in good weather and will focus solely on the operation and road feel of the automobile. Driving will be done at low speed and with minimal traffic. No additional distractions, such as radio, passengers, cell phones, food or beverages, should be allowed.

First Gear is an especially important part of the Crashproof Plan, because it's where you will determine a baseline for your teen's driving skill level and adjust the subsequent learning exercises accordingly. First Gear is also where you'll begin to establish your most comfortable methods of communicating and working together, ideally without wanting to strangle each other.

Once your teen is comfortable with operating a car in low-stress driving environments such as parking lots and residential streets, it's time to shift into Second Gear. In Second Gear, driving sessions will take place mostly in busy parking lots, on residential streets, and on country roads. These venues will provide the training ground for developing several important abilities essential for crashproofing: concentrated focus, increased awareness, and comprehensive visual scanning skills.

One of the primary goals in Second Gear is to further develop a defensive driving attitude, a mind-set that doesn't count on other drivers to obey laws and make good decisions consistently. Developing this “what if” mentality reinforces how quickly routine situations can turn nonroutine and stresses the importance of having an immediate action plan for making quick decisions. The longer driving sessions suggested in Second Gear help improve the ability to focus, and exercises devoted to space management, visual scanning, and increasing awareness all help guide where that focus should be directed.

Third Gear is where all the skills and experience built throughout the previous chapters get integrated, enabling the handling of higher speed, thicker traffic, and hazardous weather conditions. Strategies for freeway driving, negotiating the hustle and bustle of the city, and dealing with loss of vehicle control and mechanical failures will be covered.

Fourth Gear focuses on how to mitigate the most dangerous influences on your teen's driving behavior, with dozens of tips, strategies, and exercises designed to address distractions, disabling substances, road rage, and speeding. You'll be much more of an active observer during Fourth Gear, less of a show-and-tell teacher. This is where you mix up the locations, lengthen the driving times, and loosen the reins a little. If your teen has a license by now, you can build in solo driving time as he or she shows competence and confidence.

In the Homestretch, the final section of the book, the Crashproof Contract will help specify joint expectations and responsibilities involving use of the car and driving behavior. In addition, you'll find valuable information on advanced driving schools, selecting a vehicle, and a number of ways to keep track of your teen's driving.

If you follow all the sessions, you'll spend at least 50 hours with your teen in behind-the-wheel supervised driving. In other words, a total commitment of one long work week to help establish a lifelong edge for your child.

It's recommended that this time be spread out over at least a six-month period, to provide the minimum time necessary for the most important skills, principles, and attitude conditioning to be gradually learned and internalized. Committing yourself and your teen to a relatively lengthy training process also emphasizes its seriousness and ensures a variety of weather and driving conditions.

Consider helping your teen learn to drive a gift of time, as well as a situation in which there is undeniable incentive to spend time with you. It's a rare and fleeting opportunity to spend side-by-side quality time with our teens before they go off on their own into the world.

The fact that you've picked up this book means that you care enough to be actively involved with the single most dangerous thing your teenager will do while under your care. You want to make a difference, however you can. And you will, with some help to assist your teen in avoiding the most lethal dangers of the road.

The strategies and behind-the-wheel exercises in this book combined with your desire and active participation will make your teen a better, safer driver. It might even make you a better, safer driver in the process — which is no small benefit to your teen, by the way.

The lessons you teach as your teen learns to drive will serve as a metaphor for how he or she drives through life. Operating a car embodies many of the adult challenges a teen will soon face: assuming responsibility for expensive possessions, resisting multiple temptations, and developing the maturity to deal with frustrating situations. You've got a very short window in your teen's life to make a very big impact. Your challenge is to make this process instructive, without it degenerating into a series of confrontational episodes replete with eye rolling, shouting, or stony silences. This book will help you accomplish that, too.

I can't guarantee that your child will never be involved in an auto crash or promise that your relationship and communication will be forever improved as a result of this interaction. If I could, this book would cost the equivalent of a new Ferrari, rather than that of a movie ticket and a tub of popcorn.

What I believe to be a reasonable promise, however, is that by using this book in conjunction with focused driving sessions and sensible restrictions, you will substantially reduce the likelihood of your child becoming involved in a crash. At a minimum, you will visibly demonstrate love and earn respect for being involved to an unusual degree in this crucial learning process.

You will also increase the likelihood that your children will be similarly involved in their children's journey toward safer driving, so your investment will reverberate in successive generations of your family.

All of this will remain unacknowledged, of course. We're talking about teenagers, after all.

Perhaps most important to remember and let your teen know, however, is that all the words and exercises in this book are in service of a very simple yet profound sentiment. It takes only 12 words to express it:

I love you. I'm worried about you. I want you back tonight.

Excerpted from “Crashproof Your Kids: Make Your Teen a Safer, Smarter Driver” by Timothy C. Smith. Copyright © 2006 by Timothy C. Smith. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.