Teen Drivers Home for the Holidays

can be reached at danalbert@danalbert.com
can be reached at danalbert@danalbert.com
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‘Tis the season of mistletoe and gingerbread houses, of eggnog and hot cocoa, the season of joy and giving. ‘Tis also the season of millions of college kids home for the holidays after cramming for finals, taking finals, and celebrating the completion of said finals.

Home and a bit distracted

We often hear that this generation doesn’t care about driving. Barely one in four sixteen-year-olds has learned to drive. They travel by Uber and eat by DoorDash. No more gas station fill-ups and pizza-joint get togethers for them. Yet seven in ten college-aged young people hold a license, which means a lot of young people are still novices at the age of 19 or 20. They haven’t seen a set of car keys at least since Thanksgiving, maybe not even since Labor Day. To make matters worse, the roads in late December, thanks to all of that egg nog, are more dangerous than average. Yet in the spirit of the season, we parents will turn over the keys to the family car and hope for the best.

DoorDash has changed habits for many young people. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Instagram Incident

Ours arrived this week, worn out from studying, well out of practice, and undeterred by the season’s dark nights and what the meteorologists here in New England euphemistically call the “wintry mix” of precipitation. She’s been off at college, on a car-free campus, not driving. And she has missed it. When I ask my Gen-Z daughter where she is going and why, she replies, “Nowhere. Just because.”

She likes to drive and she’s pretty good at it. But she likes her social media, too. Instagram, that’s how we heard about it. “After I crashed the truck, wave emoji, truck emoji,” she had posted, under a picture of her and a friend at the beach. We didn’t really think she’d crashed my truck. I mean, what kid crashes her dad’s truck and then announces it on Instagram?

Ours, I guess. Under questioning, Molly revealed that she had indeed bashed in the side of my truck against a steel pole. She had been turning into a driveway, while her two pals sitting next to her were goofing around. The pole, holding up a porch, was apparently a known hazard. She had made the turn many times. Fortunately, neither she and her friends nor the steel pole were injured in the event. The man at the body shop wanted $3,200. The bend in the sheet metal remains.

With Molly now home for a month – it seems the more we parents pay for college the less time our students spend in class – I want to avoid a repeat of what our family now calls the “The Instagram Incident.” So, I contacted Dr. Donald Fisher, of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center, who has been studying humans behind the wheel for thirty years. From his offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dr. Fisher explained that young drivers have trouble anticipating hazards in the road environment, such as pedestrians stepping out between two parked cars. That made sense, but did not seem to apply to this particular steel pole.

The Distractology trainer helps a conscientious learn to avoid distraction. (Photo: Arbella Insurance Foundation)

Dr. Distracted Driving

Distracted driving has also become something of an epidemic, he added. Looking away from the road for a long time – two seconds, say – obviously creates a risk. So too does chronic distraction, glancing up and down quickly but repeatedly. The driver loses situational awareness. Talking on the phone results in “cognitive distraction.” Your eyes stay glued to the road, but your mind wanders away.

But my daughter always stashes her iPhone before she turns the key, I protested. “Touch screens are horribly distracting,” Dr. Fisher added. “It’s not like in my day,” he said, when our fingers could find the tuning knob and the station selectors by feel. “Now it’s a mess.” I explained that the truck was built back in his day. It doesn’t have a CD player, let alone a touch screen.

Then I mentioned the girlfriends. “Ah, add a teen passenger and the risk goes up by a factor of two,” he said. “Add another and it goes up by a factor of three. It’s a death trap.” Dr. Fisher’s bedside manner was hardly reassuring.

Automakers have begun installing driver-facing cameras and developing algorithms to identify driver distraction and issue alerts. These are only in their infancy, however, and a nagging car may be a tough sell.

Research has shown that post-licensing training can significantly improve hazard perception and reduce distracted driving incidents. Dr. Fisher suggested I check out Distractology 101, a driver-training program he developed with the Arbella Insurance Foundation. The foundation, a non-profit philanthropic organization affiliated with a regional New England insurance underwriter, visits high schools with a purpose-built trailer. Distractology just happened to be visiting our town’s high school and they let me come check it out. Inside, the trailer felt a bit like an upscale airport rental counter. Volunteers – many came for the $15 gas card – fill out a couple of electronic forms and then choose a simulator.

I found myself in the back seat of a little red car driven by Emily, a conscientious young driver. The girl’s hands were shaking as she picked up her phone. “I would never do this!” she screamed. Our Distractology trainer, Brenna Morrissey, four years on the job, had seen such protestations before. She calmly but firmly told Emily to text her mom. Almost immediately, we rear ended an SUV. The windscreen shattered and the whole world froze. Simulated though it was, the crash startled and unnerved us both. I never found out how her mom took the news.

But the texting exercise was only one of eight scenarios. Students mostly drove without evident distractions. Still they hit a dog in a crosswalk, were themselves mowed down by a tractor-trailer, and t-boned a motorcyclist.

Teens have heard texting and driving is dangerous. The simulator lets them experience that danger. (Photo: Arbella Insurance Foundation)


Distractology is not a “scared straight” program. All of the kids I watched said they never text and drive. I believe them. It didn’t seem like a driving test that participants are expected to pass, either. It can’t possibly be because I myself failed utterly. We talk about distracted driving as if all parents need to do is tell kids to pay attention! But Distractology demonstrates that inexperienced drivers need to learn where to focus their attention as well.

Eye-tracking studies show that experienced drivers are six times more likely to recognize latent hazards and scan the scene than novices are. In my day, we had three years under our seat belts by 19. Now many kids have only just started driving when they give it up for an auto-free lifestyle on campus.

The Distractology trailer has already gone off to another town, but I plan to apply what I’ve learned. We don’t have any fancy driver-facing cameras in our cars, but we do have a couple of driver-facing parents in the house. I’ve been watching, and yes, nagging a bit. I’d rather not have another Instagram Incident. I’d rather we all had a safe and joyous holiday season.

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can be reached at danalbert@danalbert.com
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