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Simple steps can keep kids safer on the road

Students with the Elite School of Driving learn the basics of car care -- how to turn lights on and off, check the oil, change a tire and more - during class Thursday at the Mariner Mall under the guidance of instructor Jeff Kothbauer and mechanic Shelby Holen of S&K Aviation. (Maria Lockwood)

A car can become a coffin.

Young drivers are most likely to end their lives behind the wheel. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, teen drivers are four times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than adult driver. And traffic accidents remain the leading cause of death for teens.

That message doesn't always leave an impact on new drivers.

"I think the biggest fear I have with kids when they drive is they think they're invincible," said Ray Kosey, Superior High School athletic director and former driver's education instructor at Northwestern High School. "As young drivers, they don't realize what the risks are."

It takes about three years for new drivers to be considered experienced. That's the point when insurance rates begin to recede, said Karen Korhonen, owner of Karen Korhonen Agency of American Family Insurance.

National Teen Driver Safety Week rolls into Wisconsin Oct. 17-23. But safe teen driving is something that needs work 365 days of the year, according to experts.

"Ultimately they're the ones making decisions in the car," said Jeff Kothbauer of Elite School of Driving. "It's up to the parents, the driver's education instructor and the child to develop good habits."

What are the keys to keeping new drivers safe?

Seat belt use

"The single most effective thing anybody can do to reduce their chance of injury or death in a traffic crash is to use a seat belt," said Detective John Parenteau with the Douglas County Sheriff's Department. It's a message he has taken to schools throughout the county and continues to stress through child safety seat checks, like the one that runs 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 9 at the Superior Fire Department Headquarters. That dedication to seat belt use has earned Parenteau the nickname of "Captain Carseat."

"Patent pending," the detective joked, but his dedication to seat belt use is no laughing matter.

Seat belts keep people in the safest part of the vehicle - the passenger compartment. They aren't a guarantee of safety, Parenteau said, but they raise your odds of surviving a crash.

How do you get kids to wear them? Model good behavior, remind them, and if possible, get their peers involved.

At NHS, the Students Against Destructive Decisions group holds an annual Teen Buckle Down event.

At the beginning of a week, they check to see how many students driving into the parking lot are buckled up. After a week of promotions and announcements, they check again. Fueled by rewards like gas cards, said SADD co-advisor Marsha Scherz, the event works.

Last spring, only 82 percent of students were buckled up during the initial count. By the end of the week, 100 percent were wearing their seat belts.

Distracted driving

Too much activity in the back seat, a loud radio station or chatting on the cell phone can lead to an accident for a new driver. Kothbauer said one of his former students was driving past Heritage Park recently when a bag of crackers on his passenger seat slipped to the floor. He bent to pick it up and ended up hitting the vehicle in front of him.

The Graduated Driver's License, instituted in 2000, took aim at distracted driving, limiting the number of teens who can be in the car with a new driver during their first nine months on the road.

An emerging problem is the increase in texting while driving. According to state statistics, texting while driving is the equivalent of driving drunk. It impairs a driver as much as 0.08 blood alcohol content. The solution, said Sgt. Mark McGillis of the Superior Police Department, is simple.

"Quit texting while driving," he said, noting that on Dec. 1, a state law goes into effect making it illegal to text while driving.

Speeding

"The faster you go, the greater your chance of being injured or killed in a crash," Parenteau said.

Young drivers also need to remember that speed limits are set for clear roads - introduce an ice sheen, snow, rolling fog or pounding rain, and drivers should slow down.

Driving for conditions is crucial, Korhonen said.

"You need to slow down so you've got enough space, don't tailgate," she said. "Kids have to be reminded about these things."

Kosey said that if he could change one thing about the new driver process, it would be to allow teens to get their permit at age 15 "so they could have a whole year of driving with their parents."

"That would allow them to drive in all kinds of conditions," he said.

The DOT lists other common crash factors on its Web site -- aggressive driving, tailgating, weaving through heavy traffic, drowsy driving, red light running and failure to yield the right of way.

Other factors include the safety of the vehicle. A car in good condition, preferably with anti-lock brakes, air bags and front-wheel or 4-wheel drive, can provide added safety, Korhonen said. In addition, small vehicles will sustain more damage in an accident than bigger vehicles.

Parents are part of the safety equation, too.

Teens need at least 30 hours of driving time with an adult before they can trade in their permit for a probationary license. But that's just a minimum DOT requirement. More hours behind the wheel give new drivers more experience on the road.

Setting up rules and consequences for breaking them ahead of time can keep teens on their toes, according to the DOT. Modeling good behavior and looking for teachable moments is also helpful, Kosey said. American Family Insurance even offers a free Teen Safe Driver Program, where a camera is installed in the car the teen drives, for clients. It only records when the car behaves erratically (quick braking, wild turns, etc.) and sends that clip directly to the parents via e-mail. No one else views the clip, but it provides a chance for parents to continue to educate their children on driving behavior.

And until they turn 18, parents or sponsors can revoke their sponsorship for the teen driver at any time, which leads to them losing their license, Korthbauer said.

For more information on teen driver safety, visit www.dot.wisconsin.gov/drivers/teens/

index.htm, www.nhtsa.gov or www.speakuporelse.org.

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