By Janet Goetze
For the Hollywood Star News
Teens may be old enough to get a driver’s license, but they may not be mature enough to drive safely. That’s one of the disturbing facts noted in the Teen Drivers Licensing Workshop at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center.
The workshop, one of several safety programs developed through Legacy’s Trauma Nurses Talk Tough, is aimed at more than young drivers. Parents are strongly encouraged to attend, too, said Cathy Bowles, the coordinator of the community education program.
“I’m trying to empower parents to know what their role is with this driving piece,” said Bowles. “They need to be able to measure the child’s maturity. That’s fundamental to taking on the responsibility of driving.”
In a recent three-hour class, offered on the third Wednesday of every month, Bowles and trauma nurse Shelley Campbell outlined factors that affect safe driving and decision-making.
One is the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is right behind the forehead. It helps people focus thoughts, plan ahead, make short-term decisions, and adjust actions or reactions in changing situations. Yet, it is one of the last sections of the brain to mature, according to American Medical Association studies. It may not reach full maturity until the mid-20s or later.
When a parent asks a teen why she did something that seems wrong-headed or risky, and the teen responds, “I don’t know,” that may be the right answer, Bowles said. Literature distributed to parents explains: “They don’t know because the immature brain can send some confusing messages at times.”
Clyde Loftis heard his 16-year-old son give the “I don’t know” response after he got a speeding ticket a half-dozen years ago. Loftis immediately signed up himself and his son for the workshop at Emanuel.
Loftis was responding as more than an exasperated parent, however. He was a father who still grieves for a 17-year-old daughter who drove too fast and lost control of a car that smashed into a tree. She and two girlfriends died in the crash eight years ago.
“My son knew he had screwed up,” Loftis said. In the workshop, as Bowles related the stories of other families, his son recognized the emotional aftermath of a deadly crash. “Accident,” Loftis explained, isn’t the word of choice when speed, cell phones or the antics of peer passengers – factors that could be avoided – result in fatal crashes.
Loftis often joins Bowles’ workshop to talk to teens and parents about his daughter’s early life and her sudden death. Talking about her outside the class, Loftis periodically paused to compose himself. Sometimes he asks a teenager why he signed up for the workshop, which may include youth learning to drive or those referred by a court after a citation. If the teen says, “I didn’t want to pay for the ticket,” Loftis lets him know that’s the wrong answer.
“You’re here to learn about safe driving,” Loftis responds. “We care if you die.”
The workshop literature says: “Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens.” Speeding is the most common cause for citations issued to young drivers, especially those who have been driving for about a year, Bowles said. Other factors can lead to injury or death, she tells workshop participants. However, buckling the seat belts of everyone in the car can save lives, Bowles said.
Traveling at speeds safe for the road conditions also prevents crashes, said Campbell, who provided diagrams showing the stopping distances of vehicles traveling at various speeds. A car going 35 miles an hour takes about 250 feet to stop, she said, but the distance could increase with rain, wet leaves or slush on the pavement. A bigger, heavier truck takes longer to stop than a car, she said.
Bowles said young children learn driving habits from their parents. That’s why it’s important, she said, for parents to maintain good driving habits: wearing a seat belt, driving at the posted speed limit and never driving after drinking.
Bowles recommended that parent and teen adopt a formal driving contract. A simple contract could specify that the student maintain a specific grade-point average, never use alcohol or drugs and get permission to transport passengers.
If the teen receives a citation, Bowles recommended, he/she may drive only under supervision, which could include formal driving lessons.
Sandra Reily, a parent who attended the class, said, “I like the forthright way (Campbell) presented information.” Another parent, Eva McConnell, said of the class: “It makes you think.”