The facts couldn’t be clearer: Car accidents are the number-one cause of accidental deaths in children ages 0-19 nationally. And in New York State, Suffolk County has the highest teen death rate from auto accidents. Motor vehicle accidents are also responsible for an alarming proportion of disabling injuries. The experts at Stony Brook Children’s want you to not only be aware of this problem, but also to take action to keep your children and teens safe. Here, Jane McCormack, RN, Trauma Program Manager, answers important questions.
What hazards do teen drivers face on the road?
Even more than drinking and driving — which thanks to strong messaging is at an all-time low — distracted driving is a huge problem for teens. This includes anything that takes their attention away from the road: cell phones, texting, music and GPS, but most of all, other passengers. For every additional passenger, the fatal crash rate goes up. New York has a good graduated licensing program that helps limit the number of passengers, but parents can do their part too in making teens earn driving (and passenger) privileges in three-month increments.
What is the number one thing parents can do to help keep their teen drivers safe?
Get involved and stay involved. Just because a teen has completed driver’s education training and has received a license does not mean he or she is road ready. Studies show that the part of the brain affecting judgment is not fully developed until age 25. So this fact, combined with novice driving skills, means that teens need more supervision than you might think. Here are some steps that parents should consider:
- Give teens a 10 pm curfew. Most fatal crashes occur at night, so this takes the teen off the road during the most dangerous hours.
- Don’t give teens carte blanche for use of the car. Teens who have to ask for permission to take the car have fewer crashes, better safety records and higher rates of seatbelt use.
- Make safe driving an ongoing dialogue from the time your teen is able to sit beside you in the front seat (typically at around age 13). Point out unsafe behaviors in other drivers. Discuss why you make certain driving decisions. Describe what you are doing. This will give your teen context and rationale for the things that you do automatically based on your more than 20 years of experience behind the wheel.
- Model safe driving behaviors. If you talk on your cell phone, eat lunch, apply makeup and peek at text messages while driving, why should a teen listen to you when you ask them not to do the same?
- Talk with other parents. Agree to enforce these guidelines together. But don’t be afraid to be the heavy, or the unpopular parent when needed.
What about these parent/teen driver “contracts.” Are they effective?
Yes, because they make expectations clear upfront. Here ia a sample contract, but feel free to make up your own. Some common agreements: not to text and drive, to be home at a certain time, to not drink and drive but also to not get in a car with a driver who has been drinking, and so on. Some parents and teens agree upon a code word that when used the parent agrees to pick the teen up at the party or whatever unsafe situation he or she might be in, no questions asked.
What are the new guidelines for child safety seats?
Over the past several years, not only has the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its recommendations, but New York State has made changes in the laws governing child seats. Here are the most up-to-date guidelines.
- Infants and toddlers: Should remain in rear-facing seats as long as possible, often up to age 2 or until the child outgrows the seat’s weight and height limits. This position protects against spinal cord injuries in the event of a head-on collision (the most common type).
- Children: Must remain in car seats until age 8. However, they can graduate to a booster seat when they outgrow the height and weight limits of their forward-facing seat. The booster seat helps ensure that both the lap belt and the shoulder harness are in the correct position. You want the belts to lie across bones — not soft tissue — to prevent internal injuries in case of a crash.
- Older children and teens: A child is the right size to fit a standard seatbelt properly when they pass the 5-step test:
- The child can sit all the way back against the auto seat.
- The child's knees bend comfortably at the edge of the auto seat.
- The belt crosses the shoulder between the neck and arm.
- The lap belt is low, touching the thighs.
- The child will stay seated the ways described in 1 through 4 above, for the whole trip.
If the answer is "no" to any of these questions, keep the child in a booster seat. Also, because of the angle and force of the airbags when deployed, children should not ride in the front seat until age 13.
More information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website: http://www.cdc.gov/parentsarethekey.
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