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Experts advise calm in teaching teens to drive despite bumps in the road

Ben Schmitt
| Tuesday, March 8, 2016, 1:07 p.m.
Health reporter Ben Schmitt and his daughter, Jordan
Health reporter Ben Schmitt and his daughter, Jordan

“Look out!”

“Stay in your lane!”

“BRAAAAAAKE!”

My firstborn daughter has finally reached the age.

Yeah, that age.

You know, Sweet 16: dances, dates and, gulp, driving.

I've read articles over the past few years stating teenagers are waiting longer to get their driver's licenses.

Those studies don't apply in my household. Jordan was ready to roll when her 16th birthday arrived in January.

She studied her driver's manual, got a required physical examination and aced her permit test (on the second attempt).

Panic ensued as I imagined her trying to navigate the Parkway East, turnpike, steep Western Pennsylvania hills and random slowdowns inside the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. Not to mention the temptation to text and drive, speed through a snowstorm or confuse the brake and gas pedals.

Yikes!

I turned to Dr. Joseph Aracri, chair of pediatrics at Allegheny Health Network, for guidance.

Turns out, he's in the midst of driving lessons with his 16-year-old son, Will. They've been at it for five months.

Aracri's advice came in one word.

“Relax,” he said. “It's going to happen. They are going to drive. As soon as you yell, they are going to freak out, and the next thing you know, you'll be in a ditch.”

I had failed at the not-yelling part during an early trial run with Jordan maneuvering around the Highland Park Reservoir.

Sheepishly, I flashed back to my screams and lack of calm from the previous weekend:

“Watch the parked cars. You're too close!”

“You had the right of way there!”

“Slow. Slow. Slow. ... Pull over!”

Thankfully, no ditch.

Kathy Bernstein, senior manager for Teen Driving Initiatives at the National Safety Council in Chicago, didn't exactly quell my anxiety.

“The first year of driving is the most dangerous year,” she told me flatly. “Car crashes continue to be the No. 1 killers of teens on an annual basis.”

Maybe the thought of Jordan transitioning to adulthood scared me the most. Maybe I realized I needed to step up my parenting game to properly teach her the ways of the road … and the world.

Nah. In the end, I'm just worried about her driving away from me, alone or with her friends, in a potentially deadly object.

“Here's the bottom line,” Aracri told me. “I am in the business, and I have seen the worst out there. You need to trust your kid, and your kid needs to trust you.”

Bernstein and Aracri both drove home the necessity of open dialogue.

“Here's a great tip: Have your daughter narrate the decisions she is making as she drives,” Bernstein said. “It will give her confidence, and as a parent, you will learn her thought process behind the wheel.”

Aracri said his son now drives him to most destinations.

“You have to make them drive everywhere,” he said. “It's going to take a lot of courage on your part, but the more they do it, the better they get.”

I tried that last Saturday with much success. Everything was going great until Jordan pulled over and put the car in park without stopping completely. Then came a cacophony of clunking noises.

“What are you doing? The transmission!”

As if Jordan knew what a transmission is.

A mini argument ensued. Jordan got the last word.

“Put that in your stupid column.”

The road ahead will be lengthy.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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