Thursday, April 24, 2008

Scare them with hard facts

Note: I know how totally lame I've been about blogging, and I apologize. I wish I could figure out how to post every day, or at least a few times a week. Thank you for the notes and expressions of concern. All is well. I have too much on my plate and I've just been too busy to write. I hope to get back into the groove soon. Meanwhile, here's my column from this week's Suffolk Times and News-Review.
All the best- Denise

"Scare them with hard facts"

It's every parent's nightmare.

An inexperienced kid behind the wheel, perhaps driving too fast. Maybe there's alcohol involved, but maybe not. The lack of experience, the other kids in the car, music blasting, friends laughing. Kidding around.

In an instant, everything changes.

Screeching tires, the sound of metal being crushed against a fence, glass shattering, and the laughter turns to screams. Or silence. Dead silence.

Hardly a week passes at the newspaper when our fax machine doesn't spit out a press release from the county police department announcing the premature and violent death in a car crash of one or more people between the ages of 14 and 22.

As the mother of two teenage girls, I take a special interest in these notices.

On Saturday morning, I found a press release from Southold Town police in my e-mail in-box, advising that five teenagers were involved in what sounded like a very serious car accident on Route 25 in East Marion. Four of them were ejected from the car, a Toyota convertible, which flipped after swerving and leaving the roadway. The driver was a 17-year-old. Her passengers ranged in age from 13 (her younger sister) to 16. One child was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital, the press release said. That's never a good sign.

I was still at the computer when my soon-to-be-16-year-old woke up. "Look at this," I told her, opening the police e-mail message -- hoping friends of hers weren't involved in the incident.

This hit very close to home. All week, she'd been lobbying to go out with her new boyfriend, who'd just turned 17 and was the brand-new holder of a New York State driver's license.

"No," I said.

"You're so overprotective."


"He's very responsible."

"I know, but still no. Sorry."

"Sooner or later, you've got to let go."

She's right. I will. I know. Maybe I am overprotective and maybe he is the most responsible 17-year-old boy in the world.

But this is my baby we're talking about here. And I'm just not ready for this.

Enough with the emotion, though. How about some facts and stats?

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in the U.S., accounting for 36 percent of all deaths in this age group, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

The risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than among any other age group. Teens 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash.

The presence of teen passengers increases the crash risk of unsupervised teen drivers; the risk increases with the number of teen passengers.

Crash risk is particularly high during the first year that teenagers are eligible to drive.

Teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate hazardous situations or dangerous situations or not be able to recognize hazardous situations.

Teens are more likely than older drivers to speed and tailgate.

Among male drivers between 15 and 20 years of age who were involved in fatal crashes in 2005, 38 percent were speeding at the time of the crash and 24 percent had been drinking.

Compared with other age groups, teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use.

In 2005, 23 percent of drivers ages 15 to 20 who died in motor vehicle crashes had a blood alcohol content of 0.08 (the legal limit in New York) or higher.

In 2005, half of teen deaths from motor vehicle crashes occurred between 3 p.m. and midnight and 54 percent occurred on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.

Teen drivers are much more willing to use cell phones, text messaging and PDAs while driving.

Text messaging while driving. As if making or receiving cell phone calls weren't bad enough!

It's a miracle those five North Fork teens weren't killed or more seriously injured. Thank God. They got a tough but no doubt long-lasting lesson about driving, risk-taking and the fragility of life this weekend.

How do you and I, people who've been around the block a few times, share this lesson with other youngsters? One EMT, a 10-year veteran of the emergency service corps who responded to the scene of the horrific crash Friday night, said she gives her kids "a scared straight lesson every day."

If you, like me, have teenage children, what have you done to scare your kids straight today? If you're like me, you probably haven't done enough. Worrying is not enough. Plain talk about risks and statistics -- early and often -- is the minimum we must do. Forcing them to read this column is probably a good place to start.

For more information, go to the state Department of Motor Vehicles Web site about teen drivers: