A look in any rearview mirror will tell you a lot about where you have been, but little about where you are going. Unless, that is, you are driving at summer camp — where a quick look back can be an important, even lifesaving, reminder of the responsibilities that come with driving kids, counselors, or oneself.

Amid the typical preseason scramble to cover such topics as homesickness, discipline, and communication with parents, camp directors are well advised to include a life-size ration of driver training for staff members to keep themselves, their friends, and — most important — their campers safe.

Indeed, in "An Open Letter to Counselors About Thinking Safety and Driving Safely" insurance underwriter and risk manager Ed Schirick says that, every summer, one or more counselors, or campers, are seriously injured or die as a result of an automobile crash. He points to unsafe conditions, unsafe actions, unsafe equipment, and/or poor judgment as the primary culprits (Schirick 2002).

Let's focus on the judgment piece.

Driver Judgment and Summer Safety Behind the Wheel

Unshackled from their school desks, homework assignments, extracurricular activities, and parent supervision, young people typically find new freedoms during the summer months — and often they involve automobiles. According to research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance, young people spend 44 percent more hours driving each week in the summer than during the school year.

When comparing summer driving habits to the rest of the year, young people are more likely to drive late at night (47 percent versus 6 percent) and more likely to drive when tired or sleepy (24 percent versus 9 percent). There's no reason to believe young people employed at a summer camp are any different.

But these aren't the only issues that put them at risk. Inexplicably, a large number of young drivers continue to tempt fate by driving impaired. Data reveals that one in five teens is drinking and driving and one in nearly eight is using marijuana and driving.

Finally, there is the issue of distracted driving — one that has been receiving a lot of attention from state and federal agencies. In fact, in September 2009, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood hosted a summit in Washington, D.C., to discuss distracted driving. This summit was followed by an executive order from the President forbidding texting while driving by federal employees on the job.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that, on average, more than 300,000 teens are injured in car crashes each year, nearly 8,000 are involved in fatal crashes, and more than 3,500 are killed. Frighteningly, the numbers spike during June, July, and August.

Triple Threat: Drowsy, Impaired, and Distracted Driving

Driving oneself or others while drowsy, impaired, and/or distracted are three primary manifestations of poor judgment when it comes to road safety.

Cheating Sleep
Overscheduled and overtired counselors are a threat to themselves — and others — as they, too, often climb behind the wheel having had too little sleep. And, that can have costly outcomes. According to a survey from SADD and Liberty Mutual, young people who get less than eight hours of sleep per night on average are twice as likely to say they have fallen asleep at the wheel (20 percent) than are teens who report getting an average of eight or more hours of sleep per night (10 percent).

The National Sleep Foundation (NSF), which promotes Drowsy Driving Prevention Week each November, says that the practice is an "under-reported and under-recognized public safety issue plaguing America's roadways," pointing out that it can be just as dangerous as impaired driving.

Drowsy driving causes more than 10,000 crashes each year, leading to 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths, according to NHTSA. And although NSF recommends that young people sleep 8.5 to 9.5 hours a night, that can be a tall order for camp counselors juggling hectic day and nighttime activity schedules with active social lives during time off. As Allison, a recent graduate of University of Richmond put it in an online blog post, "Working at a six-week summer camp isn't quite the piece of cake that I thought it would be. Though I get to hang around with kids all day and other employees my age, I have little time to myself. Basically, we work from 7 a.m. to at least 11 p.m. every day. So, at the most, I get eight hours of sleep, but usually I don't get to bed until at least midnight. A lack of sleep makes you do crazy things."

A Clear and Present Danger
One of the crazy things that many young people do is drive under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. After decades of declining alcohol-related crash deaths of young drivers, the numbers are back on the rise. Maybe in part because there is a palpable "been there, done that" sentiment in this country when it comes to the issue of impaired driving (that was the 80s, nobody is dumb enough to drive under the influence anymore, cross it off the list). Recent research from SADD and Liberty Mutual makes clear that impaired driving remains a clear and present danger to young people, with one fifth (20 percent) saying they drive under the influence of alcohol.

According to SADD,

  • Alcohol-related fatality rates are nearly twice as great for eighteen, nineteen, and twenty-year-olds as for those over age twenty-one.
  • Young drivers are less likely than adults are to drive after drinking alcohol, but their crash risks are substantially higher when they do. This risk is especially true at low and moderate blood alcohol concentrations and is thought to result from teens' relative inexperience as new drivers.

Also alarming is the number of young people who report mixing driving with drug use. Fifteen percent, for example, say they drive after using marijuana. Further, the majority of licensed teen drivers who use drugs regularly also drug and drive (68 percent). The 2002 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse revealed that the rate of drugged driving increased with each year of age, peaking among nineteen-year-olds at 16 percent.

Driven to Distraction
Of course, drowsy and impaired driving are only some of the risks that challenge young drivers. Other dangerous driving practices include speeding (91 percent), racing other vehicles (38 percent), and inexplicably, changing clothes (30 percent). Additional dangers to drivers and passengers are linked to distracted driving, such as using a cell phone while driving (62 percent) and text messaging while behind the wheel (20 percent). New research released in July 2009 by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) examines a variety of tasks that draw drivers' eyes away from the roadway and suggests that text messaging on a cell phone is associated with the highest risk among all cell phone-related tasks observed among drivers.

And the Pew Internet Project (Pew Research Center) and the University of Michigan studied young drivers between June and October 2009 and addressed the topic of driving and mobile phones. The following are the major findings from their survey and focus groups.

  • Seventy-five percent of all American teens ages twelve to seventeen own a cell phone, and 66 percent use their phones to send or receive text messages.
  • Older teens are more likely than younger teens to have cell phones and use text messaging; 82 percent of teens ages sixteen to seventeen have a cell phone and 76 percent of that cohort are cell phone texters.
  • One in three (34 percent) texting teens ages sixteen to seventeen reports texting while driving. That translates to 26 percent of all American teens ages sixteen to seventeen.
  • Half (52 percent) of cell-owning teens ages sixteen to seventeen say they have talked on a cell phone while driving — that's 43 percent of all American teens ages sixteen to seventeen.
  • Forty-eight percent of all teens ages twelve to seventeen say they have been in a car when the driver was texting.
  • Forty percent say they have been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put themselves or others in danger.

It's no wonder that teens have the highest crash risk of any age group or that such crashes remain the leading cause of death for young people ages fifteen to twenty. Nevertheless, nine out of ten teens (89 percent) consider themselves to be "safe" drivers, probably because many young drivers apparently don't consider risky driving behaviors to be dangerous at all. For example, more than one in four say they believe speeding, talking on a cell phone while driving, and not wearing a safety belt are safe.

NHTSA reports that, in 2008 alone, there were 5,870 fatalities and an estimated 515,000 people were injured in police-reported crashes in which at least one form of driver distraction was reported, with the highest incidence of distracted driving occurring in the under twenty age group.

Crazy by Design?

Further complicating this already complicated problem is the fact that teens and young adults are experiencing significant changes in their brain up to the early-to-mid twenties — particularly areas linked to the processing of information and judgment, resulting in something Barbara Strauch, the medical science and health editor of The New York Times and author of the book The Primal Teen, calls "crazy by design." She shares the story of one such teen, a girl who gets good grades and takes pains to avoid making poor choices. Nevertheless, Strauch reports, this teen sometimes "acts crazy," such as the time she countered a truck that had passed her on the highway by then passing it herself . . . at a speed of more than one hundred miles per hour. As Strauch says, "She nearly killed herself."

During adolescence — and somewhat beyond — dormant cognitive order gives way to mind-numbing change as the brain literally prunes itself, recasting its very structure in the interest of what psychologists call "higher order" thinking skills, such as appraising, predicting, and evaluating. This massive reorganization, in which the gray matter of the brain (which had been thickening up to the start of puberty) begins to thin as excess connections are eliminated and remaining ones are strengthened, creating a leaner, meaner thinking machine.

The only problem is that along with such transformation comes a (we hope) temporary slighting of the part of the brain responsible for judgment. And a lack of judgment can lead to serious, sometimes deadly, consequences. Even well-intentioned young drivers may fall victim to a natural neurochemical process that may swiftly erase past reasoning, replacing it with split-second decisions that may surprise, or in some cases confound, them.

Jay Giedd, M.D., a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health — and a leading researcher of adolescent brains — calls this period "a time of enormous opportunity and of enormous risk." And Marisa Silveri, Ph.D., of the Neuroimaging Center at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts points out that it is during this very time that a young person's ability to "put the brakes on" quick, less thought-out responses may be compromised.

Mitigating Risk

So, what's a concerned camp director to do? Research on parenting strategies related to teen driving offers some direction. First and foremost, young people want to know where the boundaries are. Establishing and communicating expectations, reinforcing safe driving behaviors, and setting and enforcing appropriate consequences for unacceptable driving practices all make vehicles less risky for them and, by extension, for their passengers.

The data also point out some other interesting deterrents to unsafe driving behaviors, and they all come down to communication. For example:

  • Young people drink and drive less if they talk to their parents about drinking (8 percent) than if they do not talk to them (18 percent).
  • Fifty-five percent of young people indicate their parents have set clear consequences when it comes to breaking driving laws.
  • Young people whose parents do not set consequences for breaking the law are significantly more likely than their counterparts are to report they often speed up to 5 mph over the limit, drive with three or more young people in the car, and use an electronic device while driving. Similarly, young people whose parents do not set consequences for breaking family rules are significantly more likely than those whose parents do to report they speed (both up to and above 5 mph over the limit) and use electronic devices while driving.
  • Young people whose parents enforce penalties for driving law infractions are more likely to wear their seat belts (89 percent versus 74 percent), require their passengers to buckle up (82 percent versus 64 percent), obey stop signs (91 percent versus 60 percent), and use turn signals (89 percent versus 76 percent).

The Power of Peers

Peers, like parents, also have an important role to play. The Ad Council's Speak Up or Else campaign, sponsored by a coalition of state attorneys general and consumer protection agencies, encourages young people to be an antidote for reckless driving by empowering them to speak up when a friend is not driving safely. Indeed, changing social norms about what constitutes appropriate behavior is another sensible strategy worth pursuing. According to Peggy Conlon, president and CEO of the Ad Council, "We want it to become not only socially acceptable but socially expected for teens to speak up when they don't feel safe."

Encouragingly, the SADD/Liberty Mutual research shows how effective that advocacy can be. For example, if asked by a passenger to stop doing a dangerous activity, the following percentages of young drivers would stop the related activity.

  • Racing other cars: 87 percent
  • Changing clothes: 84 percent
  • Text messaging: 89 percent
  • Speeding: 79 percent
  • Using a portable electronic device: 73 percent
  • Talking on a cell phone: 68 percent
  • Using a GPS system: 64 percent

So, another strategy camp directors can employ is to stress among their summer drivers that, even as passengers, they have a responsibility for the safe transport of everyone in the vehicle.

And, last but not least, while working your way through the safety checklist, you might require the driver to take that final peek in the rearview mirror before stepping on the gas.

Schirick, E. (2002). An Open Letter to Counselors About Thinking Safety and Driving Safely. Camping Magazine, American Camp Association. www.ACAcamps.org/members/knowledge/risk/cm/rm025letter.php.

Wallace, W. (2006). The Phantom Menace: Drugging and Driving Poses Threat to Teens During Summer Season. www.CampParents.org/healthyteens/phantommenace.php.

Sleep Deprivation Makes You Crazy. (2007). Retrieved December 2009 from www. consultingblog.experience.com/2007/07/sleep-deprivation-makes-you-crazy.html.

Madden, M. (2009). Teens and Distracted Driving. Pew Research Center. Retrieved December 2009 from www.pewresearch.org/pubs/1411/teens-distracted-driving-texting-cellphone....

Wallace, S. (2007). Last but not Least: Going Back to School on Teen Driving. Retrieved December 2009 from www.sadd.org/oped/teendriving.htm.

SADD. (2009). Impaired Driving (Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol and/or Drugs). Retrieved December 2009 from www.sadd.org/issues_impaired_know.htm.

Strauch, B. (2003). The Primal Teen. New York: Doubleday; Random House.

Box S. (2009). New data from Virginia Tech Transportation Institute provides insight into cell phone use and driving distraction. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University — Virginia Tech News. Retrieved December 2009 from www.vtnews.vt.edu/story.php?relyear=2009&itemno=571.

Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed., author of the new book Reality Gap — Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex: What Parents Don't Know and Teens Aren't Telling, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as chairman and CEO of SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, and adjunct professor of psychology at Mount Ida College. For more information about Wallace's work, visit www.stephengraywallace.com.

Originally published in the 2010 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.