Teaching Teens to Drive: Answers from a Driving Safety Expert

March 3, 2017
Written by Lucy Murphy, CISR

crash prevention trainingCar collisions are the leading cause of death among young people in America, accounting for more than one-third of all teen deaths. Other leading causes—suicide, gun violence, cancer—don’t come close, not even if you add them up together.

Bottom line: teaching teens to drive has never been more important. And the traditional methods—practicing in a parking lot, drivers ed—aren’t enough to protect today’s young drivers.

Learn more about enrolling your teen in crash prevention training. You could save up to 10 percent on your Massachusetts auto policy, and more importantly, you could save lives…

Meanwhile, we sat down with Dan Strollo, a local expert in safe driving awareness. Strollo is the executive director of In Control Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization offering the nation’s first state-certified, closed course, hands-on crash prevention training. Here’s how he explained the problem… and the solution.

 C&S: The US averages 18 car-crash deaths, per year, for every 100,000 people, as compared to Israel (4), the UK (5), and Japan (5). Why are U.S. drivers involved in so many fatal car accidents, relative to other countries?

DS: The easiest way to answer this question is “societal attitude.”  We do not take driving nearly as seriously as the vast majority of countries that enjoy lower crash rates.  To get your license in these countries, you have to pass an hour-long driving test involving many different variables.  In Massachusetts, the test is rarely more than five minutes of driving; a three-point turn might be the most complicated maneuver you’re asked to perform.  Until we all recognize that collisions are a number one killer, we will continue to take driver training less seriously than we should.

 C&S: Why are young drivers involved in so many crashes? Is it mostly due to distracted teen driving?

DS: Inexperience is the primary cause of crashes among young people.  That lack of experience often translates into risky behavior (speeding, following too closely, distractions, etc.). Risky habits are then exacerbated by faulty reactions (e.g. turning too fast).

Frontal lobe development is also a contributing factor. When teaching teens to drive you have to keep in mind there are chemicals in their body telling them they are invincible. Even the smartest, most responsible teens on the road are taking risks every day. Unfortunately, most parents don’t find out about these habits until there’s a crash.

C&S: What are some other common causes of preventable car accidents?

DS: First, it’s important to label these incidents correctly, as crashes and not “accidents.”  The vast majority of car crashes are avoidable. By calling them accidents, we give people the impression that there was nothing they could do—that it was bound to happen.  And that’s just not true.

In snowy or icy conditions, for example, people should know that winter tires would have provided better stopping power and the ability to steer at faster speeds—allowing them to avoid the crash that “happened because of the storm.”

Rear end collisions are generally the most frequent form of injury-related crashes.  They happen because most drivers follow way too closely.  The most deadly, avoidable crashes involve single-car situations, where control is lost avoiding an unexpected obstacle or simply because the driver was disengaged (on his phone, adjusting his radio, eating a sandwich, or simply daydreaming).

C&S: What is crash prevention training? In a nutshell, how would you describe the courses you offer?

DS: Our program is modeled after European programs that have been around for decades.  It’s a closed course, hands-on, half-day course. We’re working with drivers from the age of 15 (in NH) to 94, introducing them to emergency situations and developing the skills/instinctual reactions needed to keep them safe.  We also try to chisel away at that vail of invincibility. Many drivers really benefit from seeing how easy it is to lose control, even at low speeds. At the same time, all our graduates benefit from learning what the car is capable of doing to protect them.

C&S: What kinds of drills do you practice?

DS: One drill we offer is called Panic Stop. The instructor first demonstrates that the vehicle can travel at highway speed and aggressively stop in a small area, defined by cones.  Then, we ask the trainee to accomplish the same thing. Building up to 50 or 60mph, they are expected to stop in the same small box.  Often, the first pass results in running into the wall of cones in front of them.  The noises the car makes, the tightening of the seat belt, the vibration of the wheel and brake pedal: they’re extremely intimidating. Even seasoned drivers take their foot off the pedal when surprised by the vehicle response.

What’s really interesting is that when we repeat this drill, one hundred percent of the time the trainee stops well within the box on the next run.  Once they are not intimidated by what the car does, they’re perfectly capable of stopping safely.  In fact, I rarely go a week without hearing from a graduate who avoided a crash because of this drill.

C&S: Many people assume driver’s ed is sufficient for teaching teens to drive. How do your courses differ?

DS: We do not replace traditional driver education by any means.  We do very little around the rules of the road, and we expect our drivers to come prepared with at least the basic skills. Traditional driving schools are great at getting new drivers ready to navigate our roads.  Our role is to reduce the 50-75 percent crash rate we’re seeing in the first two years of driving.

Another key difference: the drills we perform cannot be done on public streets, and require very specific training for our instructors.

C&S: Who needs crash prevention training?

DS: All drivers can benefit from this course.  We’ve generally seen a 70 percent reduction in crashes for new drivers and a surprisingly high impact on experienced drivers. (Some insurance carriers report that the crash reduction for them is equal to or greater than that of teens.)  We train police, firefighters, teens, seniors, moms, dads, and everyone in between.

Worth noting: we really want to see new drivers in the month or so before they go for their license test.  This way we can give them the necessary skills and experiences before they’re out on the roads by themselves.

C&S: What’s the biggest obstacle to bringing more drivers into crash prevention training?

DS: I would say apathy is the number one obstacle. If more parents appreciated how dangerous driving can be, they would require their child to participate. I think they’d also press for more aggressive state driving tests, which would result in the traditional driver education courses needing to enhance their programs.  This is the model in other countries and my hope is that it comes here.

The time factor is also complicated. I have four kids of my own, so I know that carving out 4.5 hours, plus travel time, on a weekend or school vacation is a struggle.  Again though, if people understood how important this is they would make the time.

C&S: Why should parents encourage their children to take the training?

DS: Cars today have lots of bells and whistles. Many are distracting. Many could save your life. Yet most people don’t know how to use them.  When I got my license, going 60mph felt like flying. Today, going 80mph feels like you’re sitting on your living room sofa. There’s definitely a false sense of security.

On a budgetary note, taking the course can also lead to significant auto insurance discounts.

C&S: What makes your organization qualified to provide this instruction?

DS: We have a large staff of instructors; many have been with us for over 10 years. Our instructors generally have a racing background.  This doesn’t mean they are trying to recruit you or your teens to become a racecar driver. But it does mean they really understand the physics of driving.  Often they can tell what you did wrong in a drill with their eyes closed.

 C&S: How do you know crash prevention training works?

DS: Nearly every experienced driver who completes our course comments that they are blown away by how much they didn’t understand about driving.  The programs our course is based on have resulted in significantly lower crash rates in other countries.  The insurance companies who offer discounts to our graduates have seen historical data to support the savings.  Then of course there are the hundreds of emails I get from drivers (or parents) who avoided a crash with the skills they learned here.

To learn more about crash prevention training and available course sessions, visit www.driveincontrol.org.