Danger of distraction

A teen uses a texting simulator (provided by YOVASO), which is designed to show the dangers of texting while driving.
When training teen drivers, Deep Run High School driver’s education instructor Josh Aldrich uses a number of methods to demonstrate the dangers of distracted driving, including having them finding the switch for the lights or cruise control.

Inevitably, they swerve a bit.

“It kind of hits home,” he said. “Then I say, ‘Now think about texting.’ That right there kind of sells it. Soon enough they’re able to find lights and go straight.”

Distracted driving is a significant enough issue for experienced drivers. Its potential impact on teen drivers who are just getting behind the wheel for the first time is even greater.

Between May 2002 and April 2012, there were a total of 20,234 accidents in Henrico County involving persons under the age of 18 in Henrico County, according to police Lt. Linda Toney. Of those, 16 drivers were involved in incidents with fatalities.

Should teen driving laws in the state be strengthened, or are there other preventative measures that can help reduce the number of accidents, injuries and deaths experienced by teen drivers?

Opinions from a number of officials, citizens and experts who spoke with the Citizen varied, though each one agreed that adults must do more to address distracted driving among teens.

‘Teens believe they’re invincible’
When teens in Virginia reach the age of 16 years and 3 months and have completed the necessary classroom and driving test requirements, they may receive a provisional driver’s license, so named because of the restrictions in place until age 18.

Among states with graduated licensing programs, Virginia does not rank as the most restrictive, nor the most liberal. A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, completed in conjunction with AAA and the Highway Loss Data Institute, concluded that if the best of the graduated licensing laws nationwide were implemented in Virginia, fatalities could be reduced by 37 percent and collisions by 14 percent.

Among the changes suggested was raising the licensing age to 17, the required driving practice hours from 45 to 65 hours, changing the number of permitted additional teen passengers from one to zero and setting a nightly curfew of 8 p.m.

“The issue has been studied for years and years because teens are at such a great risk – partly because teens believe they’re invincible,” said Martha Mitchell Meade, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “We won’t stop fighting for an ideal law until all the components are within the recommended guidelines.”

The newest restrictive law was the electronics usage ban passed by the General Assembly in 2009, which Meade said was a great change, but not enough. Currently it is a secondary offense, which means a police officer must witness a teen committing some other violation before being able to pull the teen over.

For the past four years, state Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) has proposed a bill to change the law to make it a primary offense, meaning teen drivers could be pulled over immediately if a police officer witnessed them using electronic devices.

Each time, the bill has passed in the Senate but failed to get the necessary votes in the House of Delegates – primarily because of concerns about implementation and enforcement, Barker said.

As Varina High School’s driver’s education teacher, Tony Sorbello witnesses teens using cell phones every day.

“We really try to talk about cell phones and texting, but texting is not really in the curriculum,” he said. “Distracted driving is – but not texting. That’s a real problem.”

Barker said that teens are 16 percent more likely than adults to be involved in an accident while on a cell phone. He will continue to propose the bill until he can get it passed, he said. In the meantime he said he stresses to teens the need to abstain from texting and other risky behavior.

“You don’t want to be in a position where you have to live the rest of your life knowing that something you did that you knew would be illegal and was dangerous caused death and serious injury of another person,” he said.

Parental influence
Barker and a variety of local and state citizens and officials who spoke with the Citizen agreed that distracted driving is the most important issue facing new drivers.

Not all agreed that the law needs to be changed, but they all said that it was necessary in the meantime to continue stressing the dangers of distracted driving, as well as promoting diligent parent involvement.

“Laws are great, because have consequences and they promote better decisions, but at the end of the day the number one person who should be driving training is not the commonwealth of Virginia, it’s the parents,” said Vanessa Wigand, principal specialist for driver’s education at the Virginia Department of Education.

She stressed that curriculum was always changing, but that “family law” was the only thing that would make a real difference, because each child and family is different.

Currently in Henrico County, there is no mandatory session for parents and students to attend together before students receive their licenses, as there is in Northern Virginia’s District 8. However, Henrico driver’s education teachers do offer programs with the help of school student resource officers.

Sorbello, who teaches about 150 students each year (excluding night and summer school students) said that he offered extra credit to students who attended such a class, and about 50 percent of them did.

The turnout among Aldrich’s Deep Run students was a bit higher – 65 percent – he said. Aldrich believes the parent-student presentation should be mandatory.

“What is most important is teaching parents what to look for and making parents feel comfortable about teaching their kids,” he said. “It’s a partnership.”

Sorbello stressed that letting teenagers practice the full 45 hours was vital and that those hours provided sufficient training for students – as long as parents aren’t fudging the totals when they sign off on their teens’ forms.

“We know when we go out on the course [if the students haven’t completed the necessary time],” he said. “It’s your child who’s suffering.”

Duston Dunton, a 16-year-old rising junior at Deep Run, said that he felt well prepared as a driver.

“It’s not hard to get to 45 hours, really,” he said. “It helps a lot. My parents just let me drive. When I’m with them, they make me drive even when I don’t want to.”

Proactive approaches
Groups like YOVASO (Youth of Virginia Speak Out About Traffic Safety) work with high schools throughout Virginia by offering free programs and contests to encourage students to take responsibility for their driving habits. Varina High School placed third in the “Take Action, Don’t Be a Distraction” spring campaign.

“We’re trying to reach them before they have a tragedy,” said YOVASO representative Haley Glynn. “We want them to be proactive and not retroactive.”

Glynn has worked with Glen Allen High School PTSA president Helena Lythgoe to get students participate in some of the free education programs offered by YOVASO.

Lythgoe, who works for State Farm agent Ric Bergstrom, said that she had set extra family laws for her 19-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son and that she has always told her children stories of distracted driver accidents, hoping they would deter risky behavior.

“It would be interesting if every parent could be a claims representative for a day,” she said.

Lythgoe said she hears about distracted driving accidents every week. Recently, she told her son about a call from the wife of a client.

“He had been on his motorcycle and been hit by a teenage driver who was adjusting his music on an iPod,” Lythgoe said, noting that her own son often does the same thing. “I haven’t gotten an update, but he was in pretty serious condition at the time.”

Lythgoe and Bergstrom encourage parents to bring their teen drivers in for a talk about safe driving and communication, including what to do and say if an accident occurs. Students who complete the “Steer Clear” kit earn a 15 percent discount.

Tracking teen habits
At the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, researcher scientist Charlie Klauer and other scientists are performing and publishing research on teen driving habits after imbedding cameras and tracking equipment in the cars of teens. The first study monitored 42 novice drivers, and the current, more comprehensive study is monitoring 90 drivers.

One aspect that researchers analyzed specifically was whether behavior changed when teens were in the car with their parents versus when they drove with other teens or by themselves. The findings showed that teens are most risky behind the wheel when they are by themselves and the safest when they’re with their parents.

“When they drive with their parents, their rates are very, very low – in fact, their rates are so low, their rates are identical to their parents’ rates,” Klauer said. “This tells us several things. Parents should be riding in the car with their teens as much as possible, even after they get their license.”

Klauer said that she supported whole-heartedly the idea of making a parent-teen driver’s education information session mandatory throughout the commonwealth. The VTTI research helps corroborate the graduate licensing laws, she said.

Between 2000 and 2011, a total of 1,525 people between the age of 16 and 20 died in vehicle accidents. Henrico County tied with Chesapeake as having the sixth-highest number, 37, in the commonwealth. Fairfax County had the highest number of teen deaths (91).

If Aldrich emphasizes one thing to his students it’s that when they sit behind the wheel, they are not just responsible for themselves, but for the lives of those around them, he said.

Lythgoe and the other PTSA members are planning special education programs about distracted driving using real examples and bringing in people like Toney Lineberry and Chris Skinner, who have been affected by driving accidents.

“Being a teenager, you think it’ll never happen to you,” she said. “As a parent, I never wanted my kids to get their driver’s license. You dread the day when they turn 15 and a half, but when they get older and are active you’re kind of ready. But I don’t know at what age that fear will stop. I don’t. But with driving, practice makes perfect.”

The new IIHS and HLDI study might help convince lawmakers to change the laws, Meade said. AAA continues to work with Barker and other lawmakers to get more restrictive laws passed, including a making texting while driving a primary offense.

“In order to get a law passed, they want to see where someone else has done it and whether it worked or not,” Meade said. “We can say, ‘Here’s what’s going to save lives, and once again, another study has shown this works.’”
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