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Curbing Teen Driving Crashes

West Springfield High hosts a forum on teen driving

Fairfax County has nearly 700,000 licensed drivers, and auto accidents are the number one killer of teens, ages 16-19. Keeping safe on the roads, however, is as much the responsibility of parents as it is of teenagers, said MPO Bob Barton with the Fairfax County Police Department’s Traffic Safety Division.

"We can preach … about driving safely, but it takes two, the parents too," said Barton, one of several speakers at a program called "Keeping Your Teen Driver Safe on the Road," which took place at West Springfield High on Monday, April 25.

The program also featured presentations from Lynn Killiany of Fairfax County Public Schools’ drivers education program, and Virginia State Trooper Chris Ihara. The event, which was sponsored by the West Springfield PTSA, had been scheduled for late February, but poor weather resulted in a postponement. In the meantime, however, the West Springfield community suffered an auto-related tragedy when senior Adam Foote was killed as a passenger in a speed-related accident.

Although the event wasn’t directly mentioned, it was on the minds of many in attendance.

"All of us make mistakes, some with greater consequences than others," said Diane Rybinksi of the PTSA. "It’s so important to make every day count."

Barton, who oversees a FCPD safety program for teens ages 16-18, Youthful Driving Program, said that 68,000 teens have died in the last decade nationwide due to traffic accidents, and that 1/3 of all fatal teen crashes are a result of speed. Along with the other speakers, Barton preached the importance of proper training in making sure teen drivers feel confident on the roads and are able to deal with any situation they face.

"It’s still a learning process for the first 1,000 hours," he said. Some factors contributing to increased numbers of accidents involving teens include learning to drive only under optimal conditions, the attraction to risk, and an "invincible" mindset.

"You’re not out of control, but sometimes you take chances. These chances sometimes work out, and sometimes they don’t," said Barton.

KILLIANY MENTIONED the FCPS "Behind the Wheel" program, a course that offers experienced teen drivers the chance to do more driving and ultimately earn their provisional drivers license. The seven-day class is offered year-round at most Fairfax County high schools, and provides a capstone to teen drivers’ learning.

"This is a licensing class. We are not teaching students to drive. That has become your responsibility. This is to evaluate your students to see if they are ready to go out onto the roads," said Killiany. She went on to explain to parents the necessary steps their teens must take to receive a learners permit, and a drivers license, as well as the restrictions placed upon drivers under 18 years old in Virginia. Killiany stressed that although the state only requires 40 hours of in-car experience for a license, she recommends a lot more than that.

"To me, at this time, in this area, 40 hours is not adequate. There is no room for error in driving in this area," she said.

All speakers emphasized the importance of teens’ minimizing distractions in the car, such as the radio and other passengers. Barton mentioned cell phones as a particularly difficult distraction, and praised a new Virginia state law that will ban cell phones in cars for drivers under 18.

"The primary problem with a cell phone as a form of communication while driving is the distraction it causes. Your focus on the road has diminished," said Barton.

Killiany also suggested parents and teens enter into a contract, operating on the premise that driving is a privilege, not a right. This contract could dictate terms of use, and require teens take responsibility for portions of car maintenance and insurance payments.

The most important thing, said Barton, is that parents stay involved in the driving process from the beginning through the time a teen gets his or her license. Give a child opportunities to drive once they’ve reached the goal of getting a drivers license, he said, and "Begin early and don’t wait for problems."