Thousands of teens graduated from area high schools last week, but Nicholas Novaky was noticeably absent from his commencement ceremony. The Mt. Olive 18-year-old and his 19-year-old passenger Neil Solanki were killed when Novaky’s Dodge Durango crashed into a tree on Wolfe Road last Tuesday night. The cause of the crash is still under investigation, but law enforcement officials point to speed as the likely culprit.
When I heard the news Wednesday morning, I was heartbroken. Two more teens joined 18 others who have died in car crashes in New Jersey since the start of 2012. As a safety advocate and mother of a teenage son, who has been working since the mid-90s to address the number one cause of teen death in our state and nation, I simply can’t accept this tragic loss of life. The fact is the overwhelming majority of car crashes -- even crashes involving the age group with the highest risk on the road -- are preventable.
My message in the wake of this latest crash is simple, parents (and others who have influence over young people) keep monitoring your teens’ driving even after they’re fully licensed. While New Jersey has one of the strongest and most progressive graduated driver license (GDL) laws in the nation -- a law that has helped reduce teen crashes and fatalities to record lows -- the risk for novice drivers doesn’t end once the restrictions are lifted (a novice driver, after completing the state’s GDL program, may obtain his basic or unrestricted drivers license as early as age 18). Of the 62 teen drivers and passengers (teens driven by their peers) who died in motor vehicle crashes in New Jersey since January 1, 2011, 80 percent were between the ages of 18 and 20, with 20-year-olds accounting for the greatest number of deaths (21).
Becoming a good driver takes time; it doesn’t happen just because the state says you’re now fully licensed. Research confirms that it takes well over 1,000 miles of driving before a novice driver’s crash risk drops significantly. Since teens tend to stick close to home and drive on familiar roads, logging those miles and adding to their experience base take a considerable amount of time that can’t be accelerated.
There are also teen brain development issues. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the part of the brain responsible for controlling impulses and planning ahead -- the hallmarks of adult behavior -- are among the last to mature, usually not until the early twenties. While you might think that an older teen is better able than his younger counterpart to recognize and avoid risk, the death rate from injury is six times higher for 15 to 19 years olds than for children between 10 and 14 years of age.
So parents, don’t stop asking your fully licensed teen where he’s going as he heads out the door with car keys in hand. Keep reminding him to buckle up, slow down, put down the phone, and refrain from drinking and driving. Moms and dad (yes, I’m sounding a bit like a broken record having written about this numerous times in past blogs) really do have influence over their teens. Studies show that teens who have parents who enforce the rules and maintain an ongoing dialogue with them about safe driving practices, are 50 percent less likely to crash and 30-70 percent less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as texting while driving, not wearing a seat belt or consuming alcohol and then getting behind the wheel.
This conversation takes on even more urgency now that summer is in high gear. That’s because between Memorial Day and Labor Day, an average of 399 teens across our nation will die monthly in car crashes, as opposed to 346 during the remainder of the year. Last summer on New Jersey’s roadways, 19 teens (drivers and passengers) died in teen car crashes -- 15 of whom were between 18 and 20 years of age.
If you’re got a teen on the road stay engaged, find the time to keep driving with him, and don’t be fooled into thinking he’s safe because he’s fully licensed and never crashed. While your teen might not appreciate your continued interest in his driving, let him know that regardless of how old he is, his safety will always be your concern.