In my 2008 book, Reality Gap – Alcohol, Drugs and Sex: What Parents Don’t Know and Teens Aren’t Telling, I revealed a disconcerting disconnect between young people and parents, both in terms of what behaviors teens were participating in and what issues they deemed to be most important. When it came to behavior, compared to what their parents said about them, high school students were eight times more likely to say they used alcohol, four times more likely to say they used other drugs and twice as likely to say they had sex (Wallace, 2008).
On issues of concern, I reported that:
83 percent of teens said they were concerned about drinking and driving, compared to only 48 percent of parents, and
Nearly 62 percent of teens reported they were concerned about suicide, compared to only 36 percent of their parents.
Does this “reality gap” have consequences? It sure does.
Since 2000, SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance have conducted groundbreaking research into youth attitudes and decision-making. One thing the data consistently make clear is that, when it comes to bending the curve of negative risk behaviors, adults’ most important tools are the relationships we have with the young people in our lives and the conversations that support and nurture those relationships.
When those conversations are open, honest and direct, we stand a better chance of influencing the choices young people make. On the other hand, if we don’t share a mutual understanding of what behaviors are already taking place or if we underestimate which are most pressing for our children, we may miss important opportunities to keep young people safe and alive.
Perhaps nowhere is that more the case than with teen driving.
New research from SADD and Liberty Mutual tells a familiar – and dangerous – tale. For example, almost three-quarters of young drivers (73 percent) say they speed, compared to significantly less than half (38 percent) of parents who think teens speed. When it comes to aggressive driving, 36 percent of teens admit to doing so, while only 16 percent of parents believe such practices take place. Finally, 68 percent of teen drivers say they sometimes have more than three passengers in the car, while only 40 percent of parents say their teens do (PR Newswire, 2015).
Wait, it gets worse.
Not only is there a reality gap between teens and parents, but there also appears to be one among teens themselves!
For example, despite the fact that a majority of teens (81 percent) who consider aggressive driving to be dangerous, more than one-third (36 percent) admit to driving aggressively. This driving style reveals a disconnect between teens’ understanding of safe driving and reality. Even more alarming, 31 percent of teens say they have retaliated when provoked by another driver – creating a dangerous environment for everyone on the road.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), aggressive driving is defined as an individual committing a combination of moving traffic offenses, such as driving above the speed limit and cutting off other drivers. Retaliatory driving, also known as “road rage,” is defined as an assault with a motor vehicle, a criminal offense. The new data show that these behaviors go largely unnoticed by teens’ parents – with only 16 percent reporting their teens drive aggressively and 13 percent thinking their teens have retaliated when provoked. This finding highlights the need for a reality check among parents about their teens’ hazardous driving habits.
“Aggressive driving behaviors such as speeding, following too closely or cutting off other drivers can be dangerous for all drivers but especially problematic for teen drivers given their relative inexperience,” says Dr. William Horrey, Ph. D., principal research scientist at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. “The study revealed some significant gaps in what teens and parents think is safe versus teens’ actual behaviors. This reinforces the critical need to refocus on the basics, along with other safe driving habits, before it’s too late.”
Back to the basics indeed.
While much attention has rightly been paid to the dangers of digital distractions, it is time to redirect our focus to those driving behaviors that pose equal – if less popularized – risk: speeding, seat belt usage and limiting the number of friends in the car.
This may be especially the case with winter and holiday driving conditions, when ignoring the basic rules of the road can be more dangerous than at other times of the year.
Of course, family dialogue about safe driving practices remains critical to keeping everyone safe behind the wheel. In light of that, SADD and Liberty Mutual created a free, downloadable Parent-Teen Driving Contract to serve both as a conversation starter about safety issues and a customized family driving agreement (SADD/Liberty Mutual, 2012).
Simultaneously, the Contract can also shed much-needed light on the wide gap between perception and reality, for teens and their parents.
Stephen Gray Wallace is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal’s parenttoolkit.com. He is also an expert partner at RANE (Risk Assistance Network & Exchange). For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com.
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PR Newswire. (2015). New study reveals teens are engaging in aggressive driving behaviors, neglecting driving basics. SADD/Liberty Mutual. December 3, 2015. PR Newswire Association. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-study-reveals-teens-are-engaging-in-aggressive-driving-behaviors-neglecting-driving-basics-300187511.html (3 Dec. 2015).
SADD/Liberty Mutual. (2012). Parent/Teen Contract: building a guide to safe driving. https://www.libertymutual.com/auto-insurance/teen-driving (3 Dec. 2015).
Wallace, Stephen. (2008). Reality gap – alcohol, drugs and sex: what parents don’t know and teens aren’t telling. New York: New York. Union Square Press/Sterling Publishing Company.