DANGERS OF TEENAGE DRIVING

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”[1] Although written before the invention of the automobile, this statement may best summarize the teenage driving years. In America, teenage driving is often viewed as a rite of passage, especially in areas of the country with limited access to public transportation. It is something celebrated and anticipated. For the TEEN, it brings freedom, opportunity, and gives them responsibility (for the car), but also, the ability to take on new responsibility at school, at work, or in the community with their ability to control when and where they may arrive at or depart from a particular location. For parents, they gain new found freedom from their duties as chauffeur or shuttle driver for their TEEN and/or their TEEN’s friends. It is a “win win” for both parties involved.

Teenage driving, however, can have a significant downside if not properly managed. The “best of times” can quickly become “the worst of times.” Therefore, it is important to understand the risks and dangers involved in TEEN driving[2] and take steps to limit or ameliorate those risks and dangers using the knowledge and tools available to us in 2019.[3]

Dale Wisely, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, Susan Walley, M.D., from the UAB Department of Pediatrics, and Abbey McManus from Bradford Health Services pointed out in a presentation to the All In Mountain Brook audience, on January 10, 2019, that there is a “teenage brain,” which does not fully mature until age 26. As a result, teenagers do not fully comprehend the risks they are about to undertake. That is why, as parents, we are often caught saying “don’t do that,” “watch out for this,” etc. on more than one occasion to protect teenagers from certain risks or negative outcomes. The problem, however, is that although the average parent’s involvement in a TEEN’s life may be at an all-time high,[4] there still will be times when your child will be without someone reminding them of the risks involved. At those moments, you are hopeful that they remember what you told them.[5]

Besides what we tell them, what we show them is equally important. TEENS watch what you do.[6] For example, if you text and drive, it is likely that they may pick up on that activity and mimic it, even if you tell them it is dangerous. I remember watching drivers intently as a child, watching everything they did while driving and mimicking that to a tee when I got behind the wheel. Part of TEEN learning is auditory, but also, they learn by observation.

The State of Alabama Legislature has shown their belief in the teenage brain, by increasing, legislatively, the restrictions on young drivers in an effort to lessen the risks associated with teenage drivers by creating a Graduated Driver’s License (“GDL”).[7] For example, the GDL governs how a sixteen-year old TEEN may drive between the hours of midnight and 6:00 a.m., by directing who may be their passengers and the number of unrelated passengers.[8]

Should we stop with the State of Alabama Legislature’s efforts at addressing some of the risks associated with teenage driving? Alternatively, should we take other simple steps that may lower the probability of harm to TEENS[9] (and others) in the immediate and larger community we live (city, state and nation)?

If the answer is yes to the later question, here are some simple things YOU can do:

  1. Provide instruction to a young driver

    Remember, everybody learns differently. Some people are more influenced by verbal communication, some written, and some may need pictures or video. Think about your TEEN and how they may respond and realize that even children in the same family may respond differently to differently presented messages. The thought here is not that you said it, but did the message resonate.

    Many young people have watched the movie Birdbox starring Sandra Bullock, and they have seen her in a rowboat with a blindfold on. For illustrative purposes,[10] let them know when they text and drive it is as if they are driving blindfolded. When you look down to read a text, your eyes are off the road and it slows your reaction times more dramatically, at lower speeds, than if you are impaired by alcohol or drugs.[11] Also, if your TEEN is an athlete, they may remember the old, sage advice “keep your eye on the ball.” If you don’t look at the ball, you cannot catch it, hit it, or kick it. Same goes for the road. Keep your head up and take in what is coming. Other drivers may fall into the alluring text (distracted driving) trap, but if your head is up, you may act accordingly to avoid danger because you will be able to see and react, timely, to actions or inactions of the other driver not paying attention. Also, by keeping your head up, especially in a community with curvy roads, parking on the street, and hills, a TEEN may successfully navigate blind spots. A TEEN will want to keep their head up to see pedestrians, children, bicyclists, joggers, and the elderly (who may have difficulty hearing a car approaching, especially if there is a loud leaf blower going in an adjacent yard).

    Also, think about encouraging your TEEN to have a “Designated Texter,” where a passenger will send texts for the car while it is moving. Make the ride a team effort. Driver’s drive and passenger’s text.

    Further, stress to the TEEN that texting and driving or reading a text and driving is BREAKING THE LAW.[12]

  2. Repeat the previous suggestion until it sticks

    Part of the learning process may involve repetition. Has the message “soaked in,” so that it is affecting behavior? If it has, then you can skip this step.

    Further, you may have to revisit the previous step, if the TEEN receives a SPEEDING ticket, is involved in a motor vehicle incident, or has some type of motor vehicle infraction. The key is to use those moments as a teaching tool to prevent future motor vehicle incidents by the TEEN. If YOU fail to address the issue with your TEEN, YOU may be subject to personal civil liability, as the parent, under a claim of NEGLIGENT ENTRUSTMENT.[13]

  3. Have an exit strategy for your TEEN

    The teenage brain may not always realize that they are in danger, prior to them being at risk, but they may, hopefully, realize or sense the danger before it leads to a negative outcome. In that case, create an exit plan for when they a realize that things are about to or may take a turn, for the worse, if they do not: (i) get out of the current place or situation; (ii) immediately come home; (iii) get away from the danger; (iv) or address the dangerous situation to mitigate or remove the risk. Talk with your TEEN to create or designate an emoji or phrase (safe word or code or image) that when sent on a cellphone (from anyone’s – even if not their phone) it is as if they have sent off a flare. At that time, you will know it is an emergency, and you will need to get your TEEN and/or their friends away from the danger and/or immediately address the danger.

  4. Understand the liability to YOU and your TEEN

    TEEN drinking and driving or taking drugs and driving by TEENS (“impaired driving) is something no parent explicitly authorizes to occur. Everyone understands that anyone under 21, in the United States of America, who drinks alcohol is BREAKING THE LAW, and if they get behind the wheel of a car, after drinking, they are at risk of causing harm (if not death) to them, their passengers, pedestrians, other drivers, and also, severe property damage. Further, a TEEN who drinks or takes drugs and drives, places themselves at risk of CRIMINAL PROSECUTION. What you may not know that YOU, as the parent, guardian or premises owner, may be personally liable for these illegal activities, if the alcohol or drugs consumed originated from your home or your premises, even if it is not your TEEN that caused the harm. What? They did this without my permission, how am I responsible? Yes, probably you did not explicitly allow it, but the law may place the responsibility, at least from a civil perspective, on you as the person in the best position to protect the child or children’s safety or public safety. The following are examples where you may be personally liable and be subject to CIVIL DAMAGES being assessed against you:

    1. Your TEEN or other TEENS access alcohol, street drugs or prescription drugs (off label – drugs not prescribed to them) at your home, on your premises, even if you did not give explicit permission, and after they access the alcohol or drugs:
      1. Someone is injured
      2. Someone dies
      3. They drive a car and someone is injured
      4. They drive a car and someone dies
      5. They drive a car and cause property damage
    2. Your TEEN drives a car and SPEEDS and/or TEXTS or reads a TEXT and causes a motor vehicle accident where there is property damage, personal injury to another or death to another or all three.
      1. A combination of SPEEDING and TEXTING or reading a TEXT may cause the damages assessed to you to be at a significantly higher level (PUNITIVE CIVIL DAMAGES) and this behavior may be shown to be reckless.[14]
      2. By either SPEEDING or TEXTING or reading a TEXT, the damages assessed may be higher level, as a jury may not accept this behavior as reasonable based upon the circumstances, and the SPEEDING or TEXTING may act as an aggravating circumstance that toggles the behavior of the driver more toward recklessness and away from simple negligence (falling below the standard of care).
    3. Common civil claims that may be made against YOU and/or your TEEN when your TEEN has caused harm to another or to property in a motor vehicle are as follows:
      1. Negligence – compensatory damages
      2. Negligent entrustment – your TEEN should not have been given access to the car based upon a past history, record, evidence or facts supporting that giving them access to a motor vehicle is negligent on behalf of the parent
      3. Wantonness – reckless behavior or behavior where an individual consciously disregards known conditions of danger and in violation of law causes harm to others
  5. Have Adequate Insurance

    If something does go horribly wrong, be sure to be insured. This may help address any assessment of CIVIL DAMAGES, in part or in full. Talk with your insurance agent about the following:

    1. Motor vehicle liability coverage – How much should we have?
    2. UM/UIM coverage – this is Uninsured motorist coverage or Underinsured Motorist coverage. This protects you if you are hit by someone that does not have coverage or does not have sufficient coverage. Further, the cost of this coverage is very reasonable.
    3. Umbrella policy – talk with your insurance agent about carrying an umbrella policy for coverage over and above what is provided on your automobiles or your home.

CONCLUSION

TEENS are effectively driving motor vehicles without a fully developed brain. Scary thought, right? Couple that with UNLAWFUL access to alcohol and/or drugs or not observing the road (by texting or reading a text) and/or SPEEDING, and the outcome is likely something that is completely undesirable for the TEEN, their passengers and YOU, as the parent, guardian or premises owner. It is something that may permanently affect the TEEN or others, and if YOU are not properly insured, it may subject YOU and your family to a civil damages judgment that may affect your life going forward. The outcome of a TEEN engaging in risky behavior (by not following traffic laws or otherwise breaking the law as it pertains to the consumption of alcohol, street drugs or off label prescription drugs) may be life changing for the TEEN and YOU.

I have enclosed checklist.[15] It may be tool you can use to prepare your family for a TEEN driver and a way to mitigate the risk associated with a TEEN driver.

Finally, if you have any questions about civil legal implications associated with teenage driving, please call, text or email Attorney Greg Foster.

We hope this information helps it to be the “best of times…” for YOU and your TEEN.

RESOURCES

[1] Part of the opening sentence in the A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

[2] Remember your teenage years?

[3] Sure, automobiles are becoming increasingly safe each passing year, with safety features such as automatic braking and as a society we are moving toward driverless cars. We, already, have an explosion in services such as UBER and LYFT, but the information, herein, is geared for those situations where the TEEN or YOU will be in the best position to lower the DANGERS OF TEENAGE DRIVING.

[4] Certain parenting techniques in the 21st century have led to many parents being referred to as “helicopter parents,” with this type of parenting being more of a norm rather than an exception, and further, it is generally thought of a paradigm shift in parenting technique of today versus parents of children of the last generation. Nevertheless, the helicopter must land and it is at that time the TEEN will need to be prepared to handle situations where risks may be present.

[5] Some parent’s actions may go beyond hope. In a U.S. News and World Report July 6, 2017 article titled “The Best Systems to Monitor Your Teen’s Driving,” contained information concerning motor vehicles with built-in monitoring systems. Further, the article discusses how you can track your TEEN’s automotive movements and speed via their cellphone. It, also, discusses “standalone” options, such as products like Automatic Pro. See https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/best-teen-driver-monitoring-systems and https://www.bestbuy.com/site/automatic-pro-live-vehicle-tracking-with-diagnostics-gold/5578713.p?skuId=5578713 or https://www.amazon.com/MOTOsafety-Real-Time-Tracking-Monitoring-MPVAS1/dp/B006TZ8A5W as of January 14, 2019. None of these products have been tested by the author of this paper and therefore, cannot be recommended or not recommended at this time.

[6] https://www.enddd.org/psa/ as of January 12, 2019 – “Parents, be the driver you want your teen to be…” – End Distracted Driving Public Service Advertisement.

[7] See https://www.alea.gov/dps/driver-license/license-and-id-cards/graduated-driver-license as of January 12, 2019 – Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Department of Public Safety.

[8] See e.g. Ala. Code § 32-6-7.2

[9] Every individual action made by each family or family member, which aims at lowering the DANGERS OF TEEN DRIVING, has a positive ripple effect by creating a norm or standard for TEEN driving safety.

[10] Incredibly, some people have taken the movie Birdbox too far and are quite literally driving blindfolded with, as you can imagine, disastrous consequences. See https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-46846981 as of January 12, 2019 – US Driver in Birdbox Blindfold crashes in Utah. The police have requested that the driver be charged with reckless driving. In Alabama, this type of behavior may lead to PUNITIVE DAMAGES being assessed for wantonness.

[11] See https://www.caranddriver.com/features/a16581313/texting-while-driving-how-dangerous-is-it-the-results-page-2/ as of January 26, 2019.

[12] More information about the dangers of distracted driving may be found at https://www.enddd.org/ as of January 12, 2019. Distracted driving has real consequences – for the full presentation by Joel Feldman, who lost his 21 year old daughter, Casey, to a distracted driver – See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeHSLKlFXSI as of January 12, 2019. See also Ala. Code § 32-5A-350, “A person may not operate a motor vehicle on a public road, street, or highway in Alabama while using a wireless telecommunication device to write, send, or read a text based communication.”

[13] See infra Section IV, herein.

[14] If there is any evidence from which a jury can infer wantonness, the issue should be presented to a jury. Barker v. Towns, 747 So. 2d 907, 909 (Ala. Civ. App. 1999) (quoting Sellers v. Sexton, 576 So. 2d 172, 175 (Ala. 1991). In Hamner v. Nelson, 516 So. 2d 1381, 1385 (Ala. 1987), the Alabama Supreme Court held that “speed coupled with other circumstances can indeed rise to the level of wantonness.” “Wantonness is the conscious doing of some act or omission of some duty under knowledge of the existing conditions and conscious that from the doing of such act or omission of such duty injury will likely or probably result.” Tew v. Jones, 417 So. 2d 146, 147 (Ala. 1982) (citing Lankford v. Mong, 283 Ala. 24 (Ala. 1968)). In other words, “wantonness may arise [when one has] knowledge that persons, though not seen, are likely to be in a position of danger, and with conscious disregard of known conditions of danger and in violation of law brings on the disaster.” Hamner v. Nelson, 516 So. 2d 1381, 1384 (Ala. 1987) (quoting Lewis v. Zell, 181 So. 2d 101 (Ala. 1965)).

[15] Teenage Driver Checklist.

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