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Minnesota needs stronger laws, better training for teen drivers

The most dangerous thing a parent does for a teen is to hand over the keys to a car. In 2006, one in every 12 drivers age 16 and 17 was involved in a crash in Minnesota; that is well worth considering as we enter prom season, which brings with it a yearly spike in youth fatalities.

Teen drivers are over-represented in fatal crashes every year. Why? They feel invincible, they’re inexperienced and immature; teens also tend to drive at unsafe speeds, take big risks and drive while distracted by things such as teen passengers and cell phones. In addition, the majority of teens killed in crashes are not wearing seatbelts. These factors are exacerbated by the abysmal state of driver’s training for teens and Minnesota’s failure to implement a graduated driver’s licensing program with stringent teen-driving restrictions.

Given all these factors and the recent spate of teen driving deaths, Minnesota legislators need to pass strict restrictions on teen nighttime driving and teen passengers. Changes also need to be made in how we train our young drivers. Most important, parents need to better prepare teens to drive and place restrictions on their teens’ driving to make it safer when they do.

Graduated licensing
In a single car crash, a 16-year-old is 12 times more likely to die than an older driver. Put one teen passenger in the car with a teen driver and the odds of death and injury for a teen doubles. Put two or more teen passengers in the car and the risk is five times greater. Put teens on the road after 9 p.m. and the risk quadruples. Placing restrictions on the teen who is driving lowers the risk settings to protect teens while they learn. Yet Minnesota has a weak graduated licensing program (GDL) for youth under 18. The only restriction on teens is that cell phones may not be used except for calling 911.

“No state in the nation has a higher percentage of teenagers behind the wheel in deadly crashes than Minnesota,” says Gail Weinholzer, director of public affairs for AAA Minnesota/Iowa. “Minnesota is one of only four states that do not have the keystones of teen passenger restrictions and nighttime driving restrictions in its GDL program.”

Pending in the Minnesota House are ineffective bills amending the GDL program. The three most dangerous hours for teen driving are from 9 p.m. to midnight, yet House File 2628 would establish a nighttime restriction for teens that didn’t start until midnight. HF 1601 would exempt teenagers from GDL restrictions with a note from their parents. These bills are not the answer; it is time for the Minnesota Legislature to create strict teen passenger and nighttime driving restrictions, which have been proven to save teens lives. States that have these restrictions see significant declines in teen crash and death rates.

Teaching to a rule book

Minnesota teens are taught driving to the lowest common denominator, the ability to pass the state license exam. It’s teaching by preaching and attempting to scare. Teens in Minnesota are taught the rule book and not the vehicle dynamics or car-control skills necessary to safely operate the complex 4,000-pound machines they will drive on our roads. More time is spent mastering the pitfalls of parallel parking, which if you don’t know won’t kill you, than on emergency maneuvers, such as emergency lane change, that could save your life. Most of the testing for teen licensing is done at very low speed, and in the metro area on roadways specially constructed for that purpose, instead of on the real roads and at the speeds they’ll be driving.

What they really need to know
For six years I’ve taught pursuit driving to police officers; for three years before that, I raced my car in Solo competitions. My neighbor always told me she wanted me to teach her son – I’ll call him Billy – how to drive when the time came. I got a call; Billy had his permit and was through with his classroom training. He had been behind the wheel with his parents, but he had shown little interest in driving and was timid and hesitant when driving.

Billy and I set up two four-hour blocks of time to train. He was surprised when I took the keys to his mom’s car. I drove us to a large parking lot, where I set up driving exercises using traffic cones. I began with the basics of driver position in the car, hand and foot position and movements. Next we focused on vehicle controls and starting and stopping. I demonstrated shuffle steering and pre-positioning hands for turns.

Then it was Billy’s turn. Steering exercises, braking exercises, backing exercises, brake and steer, emergency lane change, lane recovery and skid recovery. Each driving exercise started at low speed, but as Billy’s skill and confidence built I would slowly increase the speed, taking him to the limits of the vehicle and his ability. I stressed Billie, I made him sweat and I made his hands shake – but I taught Billy vehicle dynamics and car-control skills.

Later his father told me that his son had become “a completely different person behind the wheel. He’s poised, confident and in control of his vehicle. Now he wants to drive and he’s aware of other vehicles around him.” 

Parents: Take control
A final opportunity to reduce teen driving deaths lies with the parents themselves. Parents have control over their teen and their teen’s driving, and they need to take that control. If you are the parent of a teen driver, restrict your teen’s nighttime driving. Most fatal crashes occur between 9 p.m. to midnight. Have your teen turn his or her cell phone off when driving, and restrict teen passengers. In a recent multiple-fatality accident in the metro area, a text message was being sent from the teen driver’s cell phone at the time of the crash. A University of Maryland study found teen distraction lasts an average 4 seconds; at 50 mph, the teen’s vehicle travels 286 feet.
In Minnesota between 2004 through 2006, 201 teens were killed on our highways. A staggering 112 (56 percent) were not wearing a seat belt. Instill in your children from the time they are in their first car seat that the car does not move until everyone’s seat belt is fastened.

Parents routinely spend hundreds of dollars on dancing lessons, football camps, spring-break trips and nothing on driver’s education focusing on car-control techniques, emergency maneuvers and vehicle dynamics. Send your teen to a professional driver’s school that focuses on behind-the-wheel training and giving your teen multiple repetitions of each skill necessary to learn that skill.

A low-cost alternative for teen driver training is to contact local sports car clubs that conduct car-control clinics and driver’s schools. The schools are operated under strict safety guidelines with veteran driving instructors. Local clubs include North Star BMW Club, Suburban Corvettes of Minnesota, Metropolitan Council of Sports Car Clubs and the Land O’Lakes Region of Sports Car Club of America. Dakota County Technical College has teen driver’s-training programs including Street Survival, a program cosponsored by Tire Rack and BMW’s CCA Foundation.

Gordie Pherson, traffic safety coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, also urges parents to play a more active role: “Parents, establish with your teen up-front the rules to govern your teen’s driving and punishments for infractions beforehand. Follow through with ‘tough love’ when transgressions occur and hand out the punishments.” It may well save your child’s life.

Dick Dickinson of Eagan is a freelance writer. For several years he has taught pursuit driving to police officers at Dakota County Technical College and Rochester Community and Technical College. He has also raced in the Sports Car Club of America Solo series and won a regional class  championship.

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