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The Times of Trenton
November 29, 2008
By Pamela R. Lampitt
Having a child is an anxious experience, but most parents prepare in every way possible even before the birth of their kids. They consult with doctors. They select hospitals and doctors after hours of careful study and review. They buy whatever products are needed to keep their baby strong and healthy.
When the child starts to walk, parents baby-proof the house.
They learn about their child’s school and, when their child boards the school bus for the first time, they meet the driver.
But the greatest test of parental anxiety comes much later, when teenage children take the car keys for the first time and head out onto the road. Parents who have spent years doing all they can to protect their child enter a new world of uncertainty. Where they once were able to carefully control both their kid’s actions and the outcome, parents are faced with simply having to trust that their children will make the right decisions.
As a mother of two college-age children, I know firsthand the white-knuckle experience of watching a child take off in a car by himself or herself for the first time.
My husband and I did everything we could to prepare our son and daughter for the dangers on the road and have been fortunate that nothing has happened to them behind the wheel. But studies show that it takes 1,000 hours of driving for teenagers to develop the experience they need to safely navigate our roads. Until that experience threshold is met, teens and cars have all too often become a tragic mix in New Jersey.
Many teenagers are by their very nature overconfident. They may think they’re invincible and can handle anything that comes their way. That certainly is not news to parents and educators, who can chalk up such attitudes to the simple act of growing up and exerting their independence. Unfortunately, that same sense of invincibility can have disastrous consequences to first-time drivers.
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for American teenagers—an average of 6,000 are killed and 300,000 are injured annually. Overconfidence, speeding, impaired driving, distraction and inexperience are among the most common reasons.
New Jersey is no different. Here, teens and young adults age 17 to 20 comprise 5 percent of the population yet account for 12 percent of all auto crashes. New Jersey lost 48 teen drivers and 19 teen passengers in vehicles driven by their peers in motor vehicle crashes in 2006, a 6 percent increase over the previous year.
In the state Assembly, I am sponsoring legislation and working closely with colleagues from both parties to make driving safer for our teens. The recent recommendations from the Governor’s Teen Driver Study Commission provided an extensive framework for this important legislative effort. Many of the bills are advancing in the Assembly, and I urge my colleagues in the Senate to take them up at the earliest possible time.
Among the reforms we are promoting are shortening by one hour the times when teen drivers with examination permits and probationary licenses can operate a vehicle. Under current law, these drivers are restricted from driving between 12:01 a.m. and 5 a.m. each day. Only 15 percent of the miles driven by 16- and 17-year olds are between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.—yet more than 40 percent of their fatal crashes occur during this time. In light of such a sobering statistic, ensuring inexperienced teen drivers are off the road by 11 p.m. makes sense.
Other measures we are working on would enhance penalties for those with special learner’s and examination permits and require young drivers to display decals to give police a greater ability to step up their enforcement of the rules. Such reforms are long overdue.
Teens are most likely to get into crashes during their first six months of driving, and evidence shows inexperience plays a leading role in making poor judgments.
No doubt parents across the state monitor their teens’ driving closely as best they can, but that oversight can only reach so far. We need to ensure that the rules protecting teen drivers are as effective as possible once the family car pulls out of the driveway and out of sight.
Pamela R. Lampitt, D-Camden, represents the 6th Legislative District in the New Jersey General Assembly