Driving safely requires full and sustained focus. This is usually the first bit of advice given to young drivers, but a host of behind the wheel distractions, especially cell phones, can make driving a risky or even life threatening experience for teenagers. The Virginia Senate has just passed a law which delivers a clear message to novice teen drivers in that state: hang up and focus on driving.
Behind the wheel is not always a safe place for teenagers to be.
That concerns Virginia Senator Jay O'Brien. "Teens make mistakes, that's part of being a teenager," he says. "But behind the wheel, you make a mistake and sometimes you can't recover from it. You can get killed, you can get permanently disabled or hurt other people in the same way."
Many teens, says the Virginia senator, don't seem to be aware of the sometimes-fatal risks of not taking driving seriously. They are so accustomed to doing several things at once, they are easily distracted from what's happening on the road.
"They are laughing, they are talking to their friends," he says. "They are using their cell phones, text messaging and using Blackberries to get instant messages off the Internet without a clue how dangerous this is."
The legislator has tried for two years to eliminate that distraction, with a bill banning drivers under age 18 from using cell phones or other wireless telecommunication devices. Finally, last month (Feb. 21) the legislation passed.
"The reason it passed with such a large margin this year is I think most legislators finally see the connection between cell phones and the distraction," says Senator Jay O'Brien. "This is not a teen cell phone ban, because it stops when the driver turns 18. This affects 16 and 17-year-olds who just got their drivers' licenses."
Timothy Smith, a certified driving instructor and author of Crashproof Your Kids: Make your Teen a Safer, Smarter Driver, agrees. "I think it is a very good move, because when you are just learning to drive, it's especially important that you have that full focus," he says.
While acknowledging that cell phones are a distraction for drivers of any age, he says they are especially dangerous for new teen drivers.
Mr. Smith says that for better or worse, adult drivers have learned to multitask over years and years of driving. "But teens" he says, "are still trying to take in all the things that happen visually on the road: to keep track of other drivers, make their car be safely in control." "If you ban it during the time when they are learning to drive and they are developing habits. I think it's far less likely that they are going to be heavy cell phone users as an adult. So, I think a ban on cell phone use by teenagers is going to save lives," says Timothy Smith.
Though all states have passed laws to protect young drivers, traffic accidents are still the number one killer of U.S. teens. Smith says laws that ban cell phones or require the use of seat belts will save lives, but he stresses that ensuring the safety of teen drivers also requires updating driver education programs.
"Over 90 percent of car crashes, particularly those involving teens, are not accidents at all," he says. "They are crashes with fault involved, with driver error involved. That driver error has multiple causes: distractions, inexperience, disregard of driving rules, intoxication, all those things. What we've been doing to train teens for the past 60 years, since 1949, has not changed, but road conditions have."
And that's what Virginia Senator Jay O'Brien is working on now.
"I've got a study right now to look at driving programs in Virginia and in other states to make sure we are preparing our kids, training them so that they are able to get on the highway and they are fully trained," he says. "Sadly, I have a constituent who lost her daughter in a car accident. Middle of the day. She was an honor student. She just drove right in front of another car. The mother is really pushing legislators to try to reform the training programs at our schools so these young teens are better prepared to get on the highway."
Senator O'Brien says government officials can enforce laws and revamp training programs, parents have an important role to play in keeping young drivers safe behind the wheel. He recommends they make sure their teens are aware of the hazards of driving, practice their new skills, and follow the rules of the road.