Caroline Coleman, 15, practices her driving with driver's ed teacher Jim Bennett at Dalton High School Friday.

Each time an inexperienced driver gets behind a wheel, the consequences could be deadly.

Linked mainly to unsafe driving practices and distracted driving, the combination of teens and driving is the leading cause of accidental death in the country for teenagers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“Distracted driving is the biggest thing we try to focus on with new drivers,” Rhett Parrott, a high school driver’s education instructor in Dalton, Georgia, said. “They do have more distractions than ever before, but any type of distraction is a concern. Be it passengers, radio, electronics — those are the things we stress. We really try to make them aware of those things and avoid those distractions as much as possible.”

According to a recent survey by CarInsurance.com, Georgia is doing a better job of instituting rules and regulations to protect teen drivers, but more can be done on the part of parents and teen drivers themselves. 

An analysis of the 50 states and District of Columbia based on safety and insurance cost factors shows that Massachusetts, Maryland and Alaska have the safest driving environment for teens, while Montana, North Dakota and Louisiana have the worst, according to the survey.

CarInsurance.com also surveyed 500 parents of teen drivers to find out about their children’s driving habits. Key findings show the majority of surveyed parents nationwide (59 percent) have allowed their kids to break at least one of the graduated driver’s license rules — which vary from state to state —though many (64 percent) rate their teen driver’s performance as “somewhat scary” or worse.

“If we are really going to make a difference, we really have to put all of our efforts into raising awareness,” Georgia Department of Driver Services Commissioner Bert Brantley said. “Now, driving is so common and we do it so much for longer periods of time, we want to achieve other things while we are driving — texting, talking on the phone, talking to our friends in the back seat, eating, makeup, whatever. These are teenagers and our future and we need to protect them and have them around.”

While most states nationwide have stringent laws, restrictions and programs to ensure that teen drivers earn their licenses and the right to drive, many experts believe that a lack of enforcement and supervision doesn’t help the inexperienced nature of today’s teens behind the wheel.

In fact, it is that supervision component that veteran driving instructor Jim Bennett says has changed during his 20-plus years as an instructor.

“One of the biggest things is more distractions and kids aren’t getting the hands-on experience like they used to,” Bennett said. “I learned how to drive out in the middle of a field, but that isn’t the way it is now. Because of lifestyle now, the parents don’t have enough time to get a lot of driving time in. I think that is the biggest thing. It isn’t necessarily the parents’ fault, but kids aren’t getting that kind of experience anymore.”

Follow the rules

Some high school driver’s education students say the experience of taking the class has helped them be more aware of the dangers of driving, but they also acknowledge they and their friends need to do more to be safe on the road.

“A lot of kids aren’t happy about those rules, but they are for our own safety and we need those rules even if we don’t like them,” Jack Ridley, 15, said. “Teens are really bad about always being on their phone and that is a real danger to them and others on the road. I think that does affect teens more than adults. In some cases, they are wanting to keep up with their friends and can’t really put it down even if it is just a short drive somewhere.”

The distractions — texting, talking on cellphones, friends in the car — all add up to dangers on the road.

“We probably don’t take it as seriously as we should, but I think most of my friends take it pretty seriously,” 15-year-old Caroline Coleman said. 

“They don’t think anything about talking on their phone or texting, and that is just part of their lifestyle. It is how they have grown up,” Bennett said.

But many parents aren’t enforcing the restrictions that come with graduated driver’s license requirements. The CarInsurance.com survey found that 33 percent of parents surveyed had allowed their children to drive with friends, and 45 percent said they had caught their teens using cellphones while driving.

That has led some states to urge for legislative changes and updates to existing driver’s license laws and requirements as a result.

“It is one of those rare topics that you get discussion on from both sides every year,” Brantley said. “You have people obviously who have been impacted by a tragedy who want to make it more restrictive, and we have a fairly progressive law in place. Then, you have people say we are doing too much.

“What the state requires on a family and a teenager is pretty restrictive. Those things can be inconvenient, in some cases, but we have chosen to place safety as a higher priority than convenience.”

While legal changes and new laws can make the roads a safer place by focusing on the habits of younger drivers, there is more that can be done on a smaller, more personal level.

Bennett said parents have to be actively involved in making their kids safer drivers.

“They need to set time every week to just drive with their kids wherever they can and let them get used to it,” Bennett said. “Just spend some time every week to work with them and develop those skills. A lot of it is confidence, and they have to build it up.”

Brantley said much like the educational initiatives and public service announcements that accompanied the implementation of stricter seat belt laws across the country, a new focus must be put on ways to help reduce distracted driving as well.

“It is supremely important to focus on distracted driving, and a lot of it starts with ourselves and the examples that we set for our children,” Brantley said. “When it came to seat belts, the strategy was to talk to kids and have the kids buckle up and remind their kids to buckle up, and over a generation, we have completely changed the habit of seat belt use.”

The same can be said of the evolution of more and more use of child safety seats compared to 30 years ago. And while automobiles have become safer over the years, safety first begins with the drivers.

“The phone is just so ubiquitous now, and driving is dangerous enough that it shouldn’t be a secondary activity to something else you are doing,” Brantley said. “We as a culture have to address this. There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t see some sort of incident, wreck or fatality that you can tie back to distracted driving. It is a really critical issue that people don’t think about until a tragedy strikes. Let’s start taking this seriously now before it is too late.”

Whitfield writes for the Dalton, Georgia Daily Citizen.

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