. February 6, 2013.

Death rate quadruples among 16-year-olds! No immunity in sight. The medical community has no vaccine that will help.

All your efforts to protect your teen from childhood diseases, accidents and running with scissors all pale to nearly nothing in the death rate statistics of this
new threat.

Is it a virus? A cancer? A new mind-splitting drug?

No. It’s cars.

A study by Ezekiel Emanuel and David Wendler from the National Institutes of Health shows that daily hospitalizations and emergency room visits remain low until age 15. Then the daily death rate, which is steady at one per million per day in childhood, skyrockets to ten per million per day for teens.

 Everything that we do to protect our kids by using car seats and seat belts, lecturing about looking both ways and following rules in hallways is overwhelmed and swept aside by the shocking statistics of driving and riding with reckless friends.

Shocking statistics

Not long ago boys were at a greater risk of injury and death from car-related accidents, but recently girls have closed the gender gap and they are now at almost the same risk level as the boys. For example, in 1990, 160 of every 1000 girls wrecked their cars but by 2000 the number had risen to 175 per 1000. Boys stayed at a steady rate of 210 per 1000 per year over the same period.

Nothing else you have done, or do, to protect your teen during their growing years means as much as your riding and driving rules.

Paying attention

Now the threat has been magnified. With one hand on the wheel, attention is often focused on the other hand holding a display and keypad with keys barely the size of a grain of rice. Cell phones and their computer companions are taking teens’ attention away from the main task at hand.

In a national study conducted by Pew Research found 30 percent of teens surveyed send over 100 messages each day, and that only 22 percent send less than ten messages per day.

So how do parents make an impression upon their teenager that many young people just like them are dying behind the wheel of their cars every day?

The trick for parents is to keep shocked opinions in check and remain a good listener. Whatever your comment,  the first filter in your teenager’s mind is “What are you saying about me?” Parents often say to me, “He takes things so personally.” So first of all, keep the subject on a third-person basis as much as possible. Use “it” and “what” instead of “you.”

Avoid the “quick fix” temptation

The real subject may not have come up yet. “Why don’t you…” “You should try…” “Don’t be so…” all have the potential of closing a conversation. They also indicate a superior position and may put off your teenager. If you tell me you had trouble getting to work, and I tell you to try another route and start earlier, you would think, “What nerve!” You just wanted to gripe a little, and I turned it into a driving lesson!

Keep listening skills handy. Maintain good eye contact and avoid shrugs and postures that say you don’t agree or are not paying attention — there’s more to conversation than what is said and heard. Watch your signals: folding your arms, getting louder and turning away all have their messages.

Put down your TV remote, and all other hand-held devices. A “talking ritual” with your teen driver can help you keep up with what’s going on. You
need good listening skills to keep the conversation flowing.

Saying, “Be careful” is not enough. Limitations and restrictions need to be enforced. You need to know where and with whom your teen is riding. You need to ride with them whenever possible to judge their driving skills. When riding with others, make sure they know they may call you for a ride home anytime — no questions asked
You don’t want that terrible late-night phone call, “This is Officer Smith of the State Police, your son (daughter) has been . . .”

Roger McIntire, Ph.D., is author of Raising Your Teenager: 5 Crucial Skills for Moms and Dads.