Adults must create a safer driving atmosphere to prevent accidents in Montgomery County
On Sept. 24, the lives of five area teenagers ended early on the roads of Montgomery County. The following week, County law enforcement officials and local policy makers made numerous calls for action, ranging from helicopter traffic surveillance to reforms in the driver's license testing process.
These recommendations suffer from the pervasive assumption that teen traffic accidents are caused simply by the volatile combination of youth and cars. Yet nationwide, adult drivers outnumber teens over nine to one—it is their behavior behind the wheel that serves as a determinant of overall traffic safety.
Unfortunately for area teens, adults in Montgomery County are not safe drivers. According to the Montgomery County Police Department, in 2003, Montgomery County drivers got into over 13,500 traffic accidents, up from 12,800 the year before. Drivers were issued 110,615 citations in 2003, up from a little over 106,000 in 2002. These increases are partly the result of police department initiatives aimed at curbing drunk driving and pedestrian deaths. Yet it is nevertheless worrisome that one out of every six Montgomery County drivers will be caught breaking the law sometime in the next year.
According to University of Hawaii professors Leon James and Diane Nahl, the authors of several essays on the psychology of driving, "aggressiveness, rage and anger reactions are commonplace on the road because they are learned habits, acquired by children in the backseat, where kids are not merely passive passengers." Apparently, dangerous driving begets dangerous driving.
Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the American Automobile Association are missing the real problem: They have called on lawmakers to impose tougher restrictions on teen drivers but fail to realize that dangerous driving does not begin and end with teens alone.
This problem is compounded by an egregious misplacement of priorities. A bill that would restrict young drivers from transporting passengers under the age of 18 for six months after receiving a driver's license was proposed twice, but it was defeated both times—partly because parents expressed concern over the amount of extra instruction or supervision this law would entail. "It bothers me greatly that a parent will spend time with their child at a sports event but will not help drivers get six months of extra experience," says Delegate Adrienne Mandel, who proposed the law.
Evidently, Marylanders believe that the safety of our state's teenagers is not worth the extra parental responsibility needed to prepare teen drivers for the dangers of the road. And if parents are led to believe that their teen's driving is not their responsibility, this is likely to never change.
The parent's responsibility
But if teen driving is not a parental responsibility, then why is a parent's signature needed in order for a teenager to drive? The state requirement that adults co-sign for their child's driver's license is not merely procedural; it gives parents partial accountability for that teenager's behavior on the road. It also allows a parent to revoke a license so long as their teen is still a minor, a power that should be used to place limitations on driving privileges or prohibit their child from carrying teen passengers. Parents should also refuse to sign for a driver's license unless they feel their child possesses the responsibility, and not merely the capability, of controlling a two-ton vehicle.
Although parents play a crucial role in keeping the roads safe, traffic safety is still the responsibility of all drivers. Teens represent only seven percent of drivers nationwide; it is up to the other 93 percent of drivers to create a safe atmosphere where the rules of the road are respected and followed. Such an atmosphere does not exist in Montgomery County. And as we found out on Sept. 24, the consequences can be beyond tragic.
Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »