10:30 AM

Time Behind the Wheel

Better preparing teen drivers is key to preventing tragic consequences.

Parents worry about their teenagers driving — and with good reason. Automobile accidents injure 250,000 teens a year and are the number one cause of death among teenagers. At Shepherd Center, about a third of all car-crash patients are between the ages of 14 and 19.

Alan Brown knows this fear all too well. On a rainy day in July 2003 in Cartersville, Ga., his 17-year-old son Joshua drove his truck through standing water. The vehicle hydroplaned and crashed into a tree. Joshua died nine days later.

Looking back, Brown expresses remorse about his son’s inexperience as a driver. “Joshua didn’t take driver’s education,” he says. “We didn’t have access to it, so all he got was what I taught him.”

Experience is the primary factor in producing good teen drivers, says Rob Foss, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Good drivers have a deeply ingrained understanding of what driving is all about. They know what they need to be doing, and that knowledge can only come from experience.”

In helping their teenagers gain that experience, parents can look to state drivers licensing for the minimum requirements. But experts encourage parents to go much further to help their teens get the experience they need to drive safely.

Most states require supervised driving for at least six months. Many also mandate 50 documented hours of supervised experience and every state grants driving privileges on a “graduated” basis, typically up to age 18. New drivers in Georgia, for example, are prohibited from driving between midnight and 6 a.m., and in the first six months after a driver obtains a license, only immediate family members may ride as passengers.

But Dr. Foss notes that studies show teens need a minimum of 120 hours of driving experience before being licensed to drive independently and safely. Also, he says new drivers should be prohibited from driving after 9 p.m. instead of midnight during the graduated licensing period. That’s because 70 to 80 percent of nighttime crashes among high school-aged drivers occur between 9 p.m. and midnight, and about 85 percent of their nighttime trips occur during that window.

“Graduated licenses help teenagers build up their skills so they master them,” Dr. Foss says. “This gradual experience has helped prevent crashes.” To guide their teenagers through the learning process, he advises parents not try to act as a driver’s education teacher but as a coach during supervised driving.

“Don’t tell them what to do,” Rob cautions. “If you tell them 20 things, you’re wasting your breath on 19 of them. Let them make a mistake if it’s not dangerous. Speak calmly in a mild tone and give helpful advice. Research shows this is more effective.”

Jim Kennedy, a driver rehabilitation specialist at Shepherd Center, suggests that parents emphasize the following process as they supervise their teen’s driving — meanwhile realizing that these actions become intuitive as drivers gain more experience in various conditions:

  1. Search the environment, including a check of mirrors.
  2. Identify hazards, conditions and situations.
  3. Predict what others will do.
  4. Decide what to do.
  5. Execute that decision.

Shepherd Center patient Zach Lindsey of Macon, Ga., participates in driver rehabilitation training with instructor Jim Kennedy.

“The reaction time for teens is quick,” Kennedy says, “but their knowledge base is limited, so they may not react the right way.” Take the case of a car veering off the road. “The instinct is to yank the steering wheel the other way and probably go too far in the other direction,” he says, “but, of course, that can have consequences.”

After the death of his son, Alan Brown embarked on a mission to ensure that Georgia teenagers gain experience behind the wheel before receiving a driver’s license.

In 2005, he was instrumental in getting the Georgia General Assembly to pass Joshua’s Law, which requires every 16-year-old in the state to take driver’s education and participate in 40 hours of supervised driving to qualify for a license.

Even still, many experts — and Brown, as well — recommend that teenagers log more than the required number of supervised hours behind the wheel and that they go beyond driver’s education classes to get more hands-on experience.

“If you have completed the minimum requirements in driver training, you are a minimally trained driver,” says Homer Stillwell, founder of Accident Avoidance Workshops, a defensive driving program.“At best, you have been trained in ‘normal’ driving conditions, which means you know how to operate the vehicle and what the lines and signs mean. But there’s more to driving than that.”

The experts agree that the key factor is supervising teen drivers in the many varied conditions they will experience as independent drivers. One tool to help parents with this task is a smartphone app called Time to Drive ( It records the total amount of driving and driving in a variety of conditions, keeps track of hard stops, provides tips for parents, encourages the parent-teen team to meet driving goals and shows a map of past trips. (See the apps sidebar for more ideas.)

And parents can lead by example. “Kids start learning to drive the minute you put them in a car,” Brown says. “If you speed or text, they will think it’s OK.”

Teen-aged drivers receive defensive driving instruction at an Accident Avoidance Workshop in metro Atlanta.

In preventing more teen driving crashes, Shepherd Center is making its own contribution. As part of its injury prevention efforts, the hospital has a launched a safe driving campaign themed “Reasons — Big and Small.” It presents a series of answers to a simple question that matters to every driver: “What’s your reason for wanting to arrive at your destination safely?”

As part of the campaign, which kicked off in April, Bridget Metzger, Shepherd’s director of injury prevention and education, is visiting high schools and making community presentations.

“The number one thing kids should know is that they are driving a potentially lethal weapon and should pay attention,” Metzger says. “I’ve worked with a lot of injured teenagers here at Shepherd Center. Their only wish is that they could go back and turn it around. Most car crashes are preventable.”

Written by Sara Baxter
Photography by Louie Favorite

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.