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Reduce risks teen drivers confront
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The open road beckons many teen drivers to throw caution to the wind, making the summer months the most deadly time of the year for these youth.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 16-year-old drivers are at the most risk of dying in traffic accidents. Speeding, alcohol use, multiple passengers and driving between midnight and 3 a.m. represents the deadliest combination of risk factors for these young drivers.
Louise Davis, child and family development specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said parents can take several steps to make their children safe drivers rather than forbidding them from driving until they are 17 or older.
"The rules need to be clear and everybody needs to understand them. Children need limits, and this doesn't stop at the teen years," Davis said. "Have check-in points where teenagers call to let their parents know where they are and what they're doing. Both parents and youth should be respectful of each other in this process of responsibility and accountability."
Davis suggested parents teach defensive driving skills, limit the number of passengers teen drivers have, insist that everyone in the car wear seatbelts, caution youth to avoid distractions while driving and discourage driving after midnight.
Even more important than having rules for the youth is for the parents to follow them.
"Teens are very sensitive to hypocrisy, and they determine their behavior by what they see their parents model," Davis said.
But even responsible, prepared youth behind the wheel risk an accident if the vehicle is not safe. Herb Willcutt, Extension safety specialist, said preventative maintenance will keep vehicles in top condition and help prevent the driver from being stranded beside the road.
"Along with teaching your teens how to drive, teach them how to take care of the vehicle," Willcutt said. "They need to understand more than just how to put gas in the tank and get behind the wheel."
Inflate tires correctly and replace when worn or in poor condition. Check engine oil levels at least every 1,000 to 1,500 miles, or more often if the engine consumes oil. Also check transmission fluid levels and check for engine coolant system levels and leaks regularly.
Willcutt said that even though batteries today are sold as maintenance free, the terminals can still corrode and become loose, preventing the vehicle from starting. Many vehicles can get more than 80,000 miles on the same set of tires and brake components, but Willcutt cautioned drivers to take the vehicle to a good service technician if a problem is detected.
"Any time you detect a noise when the brakes are applied, or the vehicle pulls to one side or surges in stopping, this is an indication that the brakes need service," Willcutt said.
Periodically check all the vehicle's safety equipment, including lights, horn and windshield wipers. Practice driving with teen drivers, and point out both safe and unsafe maneuvers they make.
"Encourage and coach your teens to drive in all sorts of traffic conditions, with these being progressively more difficult as their experience builds," Willcutt said. "For example, youth often have difficulty judging the edge of the road and oncoming traffic, so parents can coach them on how to drive centered in their lane."
He said patience is a learned trait, and all drivers should allow plenty of time to reach destinations so they don't feel pressured to drive aggressively. He also encouraged drivers to be courteous.
"Good driving habits don't just happen when someone gets behind the wheel," Willcutt said. "They must be developed and practiced until they become second nature."
Willcutt said parents should strictly enforce seatbelt usage by the driver and all passengers. He also suggested parents take their teen to traffic court, even if they don't have a ticket to deal with.
"It's very humbling and can be a valuable learning experience, especially for those young people who tend to be reckless, cocky or are inclined to drink and drive," Willcutt said.