Apodaca: Parents must instill safe-driving lessons

Most of Memorial Day passed as a relaxing holiday for my family. We watched sports on TV and munched on leftover ribs from Sunday's barbecue.

In the early afternoon my 18-year-old son and I went out to rent a tux and order a corsage for his upcoming prom. A little while after we returned home, he rushed in from our frontyard.

"Did you hear that?" he asked. "It sounded like a huge explosion."

Then the sirens wailed, and a helicopter droned overhead. My son's girlfriend called. "Oh no," I heard him say. "Oh no."

Five people dead in a crash on Jamboree Road, just a short distance from our home, on a stretch of pavement we've passed countless times over the years. Please don't let it be kids, please don't let it be kids, I silently intoned.

We all know now that it was. Five teenagers from Irvine driving toward Coast Highway for a late afternoon at the beach on a lovely spring day were here one instant, gone the next. The horror of it seemed inexplicable, unimaginable.

Except that it's not. We take calculated risks every day, allowing young people whose brains aren't even finished maturing to operate fast-moving, heavy machinery powered by combustible engines. Accidents are as inevitable as they are tragic.

Here are some of the grim statistics and other findings, culled from reports by government agencies and private institutes:

•Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among teens. Teenagers are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than all other age groups. Sixteen-year-olds have the highest crash rate of any age.

•About 3,000 teenagers are killed in auto accidents in the United States every year. Most fatalities occur when a teen is at the wheel. The deadliest time of year is from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

•The teenage fatality rate is 3.6 times higher when there are passengers in the car; the relative risk increases with each additional passenger.

•The crash rate for teens is three times higher after 9 p.m.

•The major contributing factors behind fatalities in which teenage drivers are involved are inexperience and immaturity leading to bad decisions and risk-taking behavior; alcohol and drugs; a failure to wear seat belts; distractions such as cell phones, texting and other kids; drowsiness; and nighttime driving.

What can we parents do to ensure that our kids are driving safely and responsibly?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Parents are the Key" campaign offers these suggestions:

•Practice driving with your teenager frequently.

•Insist that your kids always wear seat belts. No seat belt, no keys.

•Restrict your teen's driving at night and with multiple passengers.

•Talk to your kids often about the rules of the road and potential hazards.

•Enter and enforce a "driving agreement" with your teen.

•Lead by example. If you fiddle with your cell phone while operating a car, drink and drive, speed, tailgate and engage in other risky behavior, your teen will more likely do the same. Be a good model, and your kids will notice.

Monday's crash seems that much more terrible because such accidents are so utterly preventable. We're haunted by the knowledge that it didn't have to happen that way.

Of course, we'll never know what went on in that car in the moments before it veered into a center divider and struck a tree with such force that the vehicle split in two. So far, reports have centered on the likelihood that excessive speed was a factor. It's possible that the young driver, who was reportedly driving without a valid license, was distracted by having other kids in his car. Perhaps a desire to show off overcame common sense.

But there are millions of young people out there who can still learn from such tragedies. I was gratified to hear that the resource officer at my son's high school stopped by one of his classes to speak about the accident and offer his expert advice on safe driving. At times like this, I imagine, kids who tend to tune out are more likely to sit up and listen.

But it's up to us parents to make certain that the lessons stick.

I've thought about that a lot in the past few days, particularly as my son's high school prom approached. Limos and party buses might seem like luxuries, but the real reason so many of us are willing to shell out for the fancy wheels is that we believe them to be relatively safe alternatives to allowing our kids to drive on the biggest party night of the year.

A long summer is coming, though. It's tough being a parent — we all know that — and we struggle to keep an appropriate balance. These days we tend to hear repeated admonishments about letting our kids make their own mistakes and not becoming so overprotective that they can't breathe.

But if some of us tend to err on the side of caution, particularly when it comes to teenage driving, perhaps we can be forgiven. For the most fundamental part of parenting is doing whatever we can to keep our kids safe.

It's not a question of smothering them, but of treasuring every breath and ensuring that they live to enjoy many more beautiful days at the beach.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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