Over the last number of months, we have been bombarded in the national press with countless stories of horrific car accidents involving teenagers under eighteen. This issue takes on a new urgency since the tragic lunchtime accident in Smithtown that claimed the lives of three teenagers.
Every time a teenager dies in a senseless car accident, the question is raised: How can we keep our teenage drivers safe? Are we doing enough to prepare teenage drivers to handle the challenges of our roadways?
During the past year, there have been a series of tragic accidents involving teenage drivers during the school day. In each of these accidents, the students involved attended high schools that have open campuses - that is to say, students were allowed to leave for lunch and during free periods. Due to the Smithtown tragedy, the open campus debate has re-emerged and continues to be a complicated issue to genuinely resolve.
At first review, it seems to center around teenage driving and their experience versus their inexperience. Clearly, teenage driving during the school day is a concern. However, the deeper issue has to do with freedom, responsibility, accountability and maturity. Are our high school students mature enough and responsible enough to handle the freedom of leaving campus during the day and still be accountable for all of their academic responsibilities?
It seems to me that those are the critical questions at the heart of this renewed debate. If we take these questions seriously, they must involve not only our high school students but our school staff and our parents as well. This issue is not a black and white, cut and dry social concern. There are many critical layers involved in this complicated dilemma.
Are our students adequately prepared in high school to become drivers? Does driver education adequately prepare high school drivers to handle driving on our roads safely and intelligently? Once a student passes a road test and is issued a senior driver's license, should the probationary period be extended and the consequences for recklessness and noncompliance be more severe? Too many teenage drivers think they are invincible and above the law. They take ridiculous chances with their vehicle, using it recklessly and inappropriately, making it a lethal weapon.
Whatever the rules for teenage drivers, we adults have to be consistent in holding them accountable. Cutting them breaks or turning a blind eye is not helping. On the contrary, it is only reinforcing their attitude of invincibility. If we are more consistent and students know they are going to be held accountable under all circumstances, most will be less likely to cut corners or attempt to get around the system.
This call to consistency is not just addressed to law enforcement, but to schools and parents as well. Many school communities have certain rules regarding student car privileges, who can leave campus and when. Those regulations must be maintained and enforced by all school personnel, with all students. Under no circumstance should school security personnel be casual and laid back on maintaining the regulations, especially under the guise that a student is a good kid! If a student is noncompliant, no matter whom he or she is, they must be held accountable under all circumstances.
Parents must be in concert with the school administration on this issue. Under no circumstance should they make excuses if their son or daughter is noncompliant. If the school has a closed campus and a student leaves without permission, parents should not write a note of excuse justifying their son or daughter's noncompliance.
If the campus policy is limited to a senior privilege with parental permission only, parents should only write that letter of permission if they are comfortable with their son or daughter leaving the campus during the school day. If they have not given permission and a senior leaves the campus, they should not cover for their son or daughter's dishonesty.
A senior driver's license should be seen as a privilege, not an entitlement, especially if one is still in high school. In our state, a seventeen year old can obtain a senior drivers' license by successfully completing drivers' education. However, before one obtains his or her senior drivers' license, if he or she is under eighteen, he or she is issued a junior drivers' license. In our state, there are very clear restrictions regarding a junior drivers' license, which too often are ignored by the student driver and his or her parents.
The most blatant restriction that is disregarded by parents and student drivers alike is the time restriction. How often do parents let their high school students drive after the mandatory curfew to make their life easier so they do not have to chauffeur their children around?
Most of our area high schools have done an excellent job in educating our high school students about drinking and driving. Most teenage drivers will not drink and drive, and for the most part, if they drink, they will leave their car and find another way home (even though high school students shouldn't be drinking in the first place).
There are two other issues that need to be addressed that are escalating in our larger community among our teenage population. Unfortunately, more and more high school students, according to local Pride Surveys, are experimenting and abusing prescription medication. These same students are also driving their cars under the influence of these drugs. When confronted, they deny being high because they feel they are in control. But what most don't realize is that their judgment, peripheral vision and response time have been impaired. Just because they are not slurring their speech and are not incoherent does not mean they are in appropriate shape to navigate a motor vehicle safely.
An old issue, but new phenomena in our larger community is teenage drag racing - that is lethal. One third of all teenage fatal crashes involve excess speeding. A growing number of our teenage drivers are racing with each other in parking lots, unpopulated streets and on highways with long stretches without lights. We know that the number of accidents that do not cause death, but do cause paralysis and other serious health issues are increasing exponentially!
Should high school campuses be closed? Should they be open for all students, just for seniors or just for seniors with permission? Needless to say, each high school community will have to decide this debate for themselves. In an ideal world, it would be great for our seniors and for that matter, the entire high school community, to have that freedom to decide. However, the reality of life is that too many of our students are incapable of choosing and acting wisely. As a surrogate parent and educator, from my perspective, it's not just about driving, but rather about choosing to do the right thing. Too many students are cutting class, leaving campus and engaging in destructive, illegal behavior. Good students are leaving for lunch and for a variety of reasons are not returning. Some students, who leave for lunch, have lunch and then engage in inappropriate behavior that makes it impossible for them to return to school.
Should the good kids who are responsible and accountable be restricted because of the reckless choices of their peers? That is a hard question to answer. However, a more important question is: What should the primary purpose of one's high school education be? Should we run the risk of putting our students at risk in a world that today is too often out of control?