Interview with Timothy Smith, author of Crashproof Your Kids

What are the 3 biggest mistakes that parents make when teaching their teens to drive and what can they do to avoid them?

The most important mistake is underestimating the time and effort it takes to help make a teen a safer, smarter driver.  Many parents assume that drivers ed alone is adequate.  Parents should plan to spend a minimum of 50 to 100 hours behind the wheel with their teen over a 6 to 12 month period after they receive their license.

Next, they are not clear in what skills and principles are the most important to teach.  The most important are emergency braking and proper following distance, reducing distractions and improving visual scanning skills.

Finally, many parents do not ensure that their teen has experience in a variety of different driving situations.  Teens need experience in residential, rural, freeway and city driving, in that order.  They need experience where possible in snow, rain, fog and night-time conditions.  And, their understanding with their teen about the conditions for using a car should not be verbal, they should be committed to writing.  A written agreement outlining responsibilities, incentives and penalties for use of the car and driving behavior reduces misunderstandings and strengthens joint commitment.

You’ve been a professional racer.  What techniques have you learned from racing that teens and parents can apply to safe driving?

It really struck me on the track, trying to stay safe at 100+ mph, that the things I was learning—emergency braking, visual scanning skills, decreased reaction time and a defensive driving attitude, could be translated to everyday driving.  In short:

*  Brake hard and brake fast when you need to.

*  Look three times further down the road than you normally would to increase the time you have to react to an upcoming driving decision or situation.

*  Expect the unexpected, and for other driver to put you in danger.  Always have an escape route mentally accounted for.

*  Speed belongs on the track, where people know what to do with it.

*  Drive as if your life depends on the decisions you make.  Because it does.

Tell us about yourself and your driving background.

Most of my career has been spent as a healthcare entrepreneur.  Several years ago I began devoting more time to writing, and the subject of driving and teen safety became a major focus.  As part of my research and preparation for writing the book, I became licensed as a race car driver, certified as a driving instructor, took defensive driving courses, interviewed professional racers, instructors, psychologists, academics, parents and teens about driving skills, techniques and attitudes, and how they contributed to teen car crashes.

Even though I have driven nearly 1 million miles without a crash during my lifetime, my research and additional training helped me discover how much better my own driving could become.  That’s been a side benefit of the book, and one I hope all adult readers can also enjoy.  Our own strengths and weaknesses as drivers get focus as we concentrate on working with our teens.

Why did you decide to write “Crash Proof Your Kids?”

Several events which happened at about the same time convinced me to write the book.  Within a several month period, five teens were killed in three separate car crashes very near my home in suburban Chicago, all of them due to driver error.  When I talked to my friends and neighbors about these tragedies, I was stunned to discover that virtually every one of their teens had been in some kind of car crash within the first year of learning to drive.  That got my attention, especially since my daughter was about to turn 15, and I had two kids right behind her.  It struck me that driving was probably the single most dangerous thing my kids would ever do, and I wanted to do whatever I could to reduce that risk for them.

So I began to look for helpful information, and found that there was very little available for parents in terms of a solid game plan backed by studies and statistics that would help them systematically reduce the risks of their teen being involved in a car crash.  That’s when it was clear to me I needed to write the book.  I could help my own kids and help others around the country at the same time.  I spent the next two years creating the Crashproof Plan, using my own daughter as a guinea pig for the behind-the-wheel exercises, as she progressed through her permit, licensing and parental supervision periods.

How is the Crash Proof Plan different from other driver training programs?

Very few advanced driver training programs exist for teens in this country.  We have many standard driver ed programs which teach traffic rules and regulations and give teens a total of from one to six hours of behind the wheel training.  The Crashproof Plan is designed to take teens, with their parents, far beyond the basic of simply operating a car, to help keep them alive on the road.  They learn advanced driving techniques as well as how to reduce the most significant behavioral risks—speeding, intoxicants, road rage, distractions, etc.  The Crashproof Plan specifically addresses each of the areas where there is increased risk for teens and provides exercise, tips and strategies to reduce that risk.

It’s also unique in identifying parents as the key element.  Parents are the most effective driving mentors and partners for their teen because they know and love their kids the most, and best understand their teen’s propensity for risk.  They are the primary driving role model and have the ability to impose restrictions as well as commit the time behind the wheel to really make a difference.

The Crashproof Plan is also designed to be flexible, so that parents can fit the right segments in the proper order into a busy schedule with their teens.  It isn’t compressed into a couple of days of driving—it’s a gradual process that should take many months, as their teens gain confidence and competence

What are your top picks for accessories and technology to help crash proof the car and driver?

First and foremost, electronic stability control.  These systems are marketed under a variety of names, but they are probably the single most effective safety devices ever invented for cars, after safety restraint systems.  Electronic stability control systems automatically correct the mistakes people make that lead to skids and roll-overs.

Anti-lock brakes.  Most all cars have them now, but they’re a major improvement, even though they are often used improperly.  Do not pump, maintain firm, steady pressure.

Air bags–as many as you can get, the more the better.

Structural improvements—reinforced doors and crumple zones.

Finally, tires.  The single most underestimated element of auto safety.  Check tire pressures monthly.  Buy the best you can afford.  Snow tires are far better than all-weather radials in bad weather.

Top devices and accessories which add risk to a driver:  virtually anything electronic and distracting, including GPS systems, TV/DVD systems, cell phones, Ipods, Blackberries, etc.

Any other tips you’d like to add?

Resist the temptation to let your teen drive freely without the time commitment needed to make them better drivers because it’s such a convenience.  We’re all chauffeurs to our kids these days, and it’s an attractive proposition to let them loose with the car too soon, ferrying themselves and their friends everywhere and freeing up our own time.  That time passes very quickly, and the first 6 to 12 months while they are learning to drive is the most dangerous and risky.   I have received hundreds of letters, phone calls and e-mails from parents who wished they’d taken it more seriously, and have been the victims of tragedy.  It can happen to you.  And for 58% of the teens out there, crashes happen, within 12 months of their learning to drive.

Timothy C. Smith, author of  Crashproof Your Kids: Make Your Teen a Safer, Smarter Driveraa