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Parents must help their teenagers drive safely

As high school students pour out of the classroom and into their cars, it's a good reminder that the summer season almost always proves to be the most dangerous for teen driving.

A new study by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance gives parents reason to pause before handing over the keys to their newly released young driver, revealing an alarmingly high number of teens who have had "near misses." It also delivers some insight into what may be chief contributors to those events -- even if they differ from what most young people think.

According to the study, 68 percent of teens admit to having narrowly avoided a crash. Yet, perhaps not surprisingly, teens are more likely to blame external factors than to point the finger at themselves -- even when they are at fault.

Indeed, one in three drivers (34 percent) who say they have had a "near miss" blame another driver, while 21 percent say weather was the primary cause. Yet when asked what they were doing in the car at the time of the incident, teens admitted to an array of distracting or dangerous behaviors: 30 percent were speeding; 21 percent were texting; 20 percent were talking to their passengers; and 17 percent were changing songs on their MP3 player.

It's no surprise that our "close call kids" are likely to report they regularly engage in dangerous or distracted driving behaviors: 36 percent say they regularly talk on the cell phone while driving; and 33 percent say they regularly text behind the wheel.

Close calls cause the majority of teens to change their driving behaviors, but only for a while. In fact, nearly half of them say their renewed commitment to more responsible driving lasted only a month or less. And what improvements in driving habits teens do report are more likely to involve paying better attention to other drivers than to texting or speeding less. Apparently, it takes a tough lesson -- actually getting in a crash -- for teen drivers to significantly change their driving behaviors. Nearly 70 percent of teen drivers who have been in a collision say the experience changed their driving habits, with the majority of them (58 percent) saying those improvements are "forever."

There's got to be a better way.

Keeping young drivers safe behind the wheel has never been timelier, and some new help is on the way.

The Parent/Teen Driving Contract developed by Liberty Mutual and SADD (www.libertymutual.com/teendriving) is both a conversation starter about safety and a customized agreement that promotes dialogue and saves lives. In short, it helps families create and sustain important driving rules for both sides -- because responsibility is, indeed, a two-way street.

This parent-teen dialogue is not a close call.

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Stephen Wallace, author of "Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs and Sex -- What Parents Don't Know and Teens Aren't Telling," is national chairman and chief executive officer of SADD.

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