Friday, May 1, 2015

Q&A with Haytham Kaafarani, MD, MPH: Safer Driving Habits in Teens

A teenager getting his or her license can be an exciting and often nerve-wracking time for many parents. Before teens hit the open road, license in hand, it’s important for parents and teens to work together to instill safe driving habits, like following the graduated driving licensing laws (GDL) that restrict and phase in driving privileges for teen drivers.

Haytham Kaafarani, MD
Haytham Kaafarani, MD, MPH, is a trauma surgeon in the division of Trauma, Emergency Surgery and Surgical Critical Care at Mass General.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, Haytham Kaafarani, MD, MPH, a trauma surgeon in the division of Trauma, Emergency Surgery and Surgical Critical Care at Massachusetts General Hospital, and his team found that GDL laws help reduce the number of fatal and non-fatal motor vehicle crashes in teen drivers by 37 percent. In this Q&A, Kaafarani provides some tips on how parents can help teens be safer drivers before they get their licenses.

My teen is about to get his/her license. How can I be sure that my teen stays as safe as possible while driving?
Parents should make their teens aware of the real risk of driving, especially at their age group. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for the teenage population. Per mile driven, teen drivers are four times more likely than adult drivers to crash. That’s because when teens first start driving, they are still driving at a conscious level. That is, their reaction time to stimuli around them is slower than more experienced drivers, whether it’s reacting to people crossing the street or putting their foot on the brake pedal. As they gain experience driving, their reaction time to stimuli becomes quicker and almost automatic in some cases. That subconscious level of awareness develops over time as drivers gain experience on the road. With more experience come better reflexes to react to other drivers and road conditions.

What rules or guidelines should I set for my teen while driving?
As a parent, you should have a serious discussion with your teen about safe driving behaviors. They should minimize distractions, like cell phones or number of friends in the car. Those are the two most current significant distractions for teens. Regarding the phone, advise them to keep the phone out of reach in the trunk or silence the phone. I wouldn’t advise putting the phone in the back seat because teens might try to reach to the back seat to retrieve the phone, increasing the risk of a car crash rather than decreasing it.

Regarding friends and peers, have a serious discussion with teens and make sure they understand the laws in place about the passengers’ limits in the car. The law has been shown to decrease the number of fatal and non-fatal crashes. Your teen should realize these laws are there FOR them, not against them. They will eventually be able to drive with friends as they gain more experience and become subconscious drivers.

What if I am nervous about my teen driving without me to guide them?
As a parent, it’s normal for you to be anxious. Ask yourself why you might be anxious. Is it because your teen needs more practice driving? If so, work with them on increasing their experience and developing better driving habits. Is it more about your own fears about peer influence? Then, the solution would be to instill self-driven safe behavior in your teen and empower them so they feel justified in speaking up for themselves. For example, if a passenger’s behavior is distracting, your teen should feel comfortable telling that passenger to stop the distracting behavior. Another example would be ensuring they are not drinking and driving. Empower your teen to feel confident enough to stand up for themselves, refuse driving under the influence and refuse driving with someone who is under the influence, despite any potential peer pressure.

What else can I do to help my teen before his/her driving test?
Parents should set a good example from the start. If your teen sees you talking or texting on the phone while driving, you will be less credible when asking them to put their phones away when driving. If parents reliably put their phones away while driving, that would be an effective example to follow.

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