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Keeping your teenager safe on the road

Next time you're stopped at a light, take a look around. You'll notice that many of your fellow drivers are teenagers. While most of those young adults will successfully navigate their way through several more decades, a sorrowfully significant percentage will be stopped short.

"The most dangerous time in anyone's life is the first six months of driving," says David House, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles and the Transportation Safety Division of ODOT. "That age group has a higher crash and fatality rate than drivers as a whole."

Parents of teenage drivers can take their children's safety into their own hands, counsels Capt. Kurt Barthel of the Oregon State Police in Medford. Barthel recommends an immersion approach.

"Ride with the kids as a passenger as often as possible to see how they're progressing," he says. "Just once every six months isn't enough because the kid will just be on best behavior."

When riding shotgun, be sure to note how your child handles the most dangerous and statistically crash-prone situations.

Some important driving habits that could save your child's life include making sure that when the car is brought to a complete stop, the driver maintains plenty of distance from the car in front. From the driver's seat, you should be able to see pavement in front of you, not just the other vehicle's license plate.

Another road risk is changing lanes. "The most important thing is having enough clearance," Barthel says. "Are they signaling at least 100 feet before they change lanes? Are they looking in their blind spot?"

Without adult input and supervision, kids start to feel like driving experts after a few months of driving, says Barthel. This is when their training as defensive drivers tends to fade. They could start to get too comfortable, by driving with one foot on the seat, leaning against the door, eating, drinking and, of course, talking on their cell phone.

The latter two habits have led to multiple driving errors, crashes and even fatalities in recent years.

"When you're holding the phone up to your ear, the other elbow is resting on the door beside you. You're limiting your peripheral vision and you don't sometimes see that other vehicle."

Looking down to dial and mopping up after spilling a coffee drink are also prime times for teenage driving accidents, he says. To combat the trend in his own house, the police captain has a "no cell phones in the car until you're paying your own insurance and are directly responsible for your own finances and liability issues" rule.

Barring that, he strongly endorses the use of a cordless headset or a microphone on the dashboard.

Another way to fight the mounting numbers of teenage driving accidents is to show support for a parent notification program that Barthel says is starting to make waves in Oregon. Operation Stop and Notify allows police officers to call parents at the time of any driving infraction committed by their teenager, as long as the driver was stopped with probable cause.

"This could let you know where the kids are, what time they've been contacted, whether they are where they said they'd be," says Barthel. "Right now, your son or daughter might be stopped 20 or 30 times and if a citation is issued but your insurance rate doesn't increase or if it's a warning, you'll never know the manner in which your child is driving their vehicle."

More than 50 percent of teenagers pulled over for driving errors are handed a warning, which never makes it onto their record, he adds. Concerned parents can call their local law enforcement police agency to learn more about Operation Stop and Notify.

We all want to keep our teenagers safe on the road. Riding with them as a passenger and setting a few rules may be the easiest way to accomplish that.

More than seven percent of the approximately 5,000 teenage drivers in Jackson County are involved in a crash each year, with an average of about 70 of them losing their lives, according to Oregon Department of Transportation statistics from the end of 2003.

Keeping your teenager safe on the road