Ben Reiser – Essay Finalist #2

In the late 1900’s a massive trend took over America. Smoking became a huge hit especially among teenagers. It was cool, and those that smoked sat at the top of the social ladder in high schools across America. The success of smoking and its popularity among teenagers was due to the public perception about smoking. At the time of its success, the public perception was wildly positive. There were claims that smoking had great effects on individual health and that there were no negative side effects. There is nothing more telling about the American perception of smoking than the movie Grease, where the nice girl becomes queen of the school after a lifestyle change that includes the addition of smoking. However, America has changed. Americans learned about the negative side effects of smoking, which shifted the public perspective. Yes, people still smoke, but the number of people has declined. It is no longer the mantle on which the social hierarchy of high school rests, and most teenagers no longer find it cool. The solution to our current problem of attempting to reduce teenage driving accidents can be found in the solution that was used to reduce smoking in the United States. The smoking trend ended when the public perception of smoking changed, and that change reduced the number of teens that smoked. The same course of action must be taken now.

The public perception of driving fast, driving without a seatbelt, and driving while distracted must change, and there is a three-step process that can accomplish this goal. It begins with school administrations making more concerted, repeated efforts to remind students of the dangers of driving. The next step is the recruitment of student ambassadors. Teenagers will not change their way of thinking if the only person telling them to change it is an adult. Other teenagers will be required to drive the social change necessary to alter their peers’ perceptions. The final step is the hardest one. In order to ensure that teenage perceptions remain changed after the first two steps, Americans from all ages must change their driving habits. This process has the ability to change the perception of driving among teens, and when that is accomplished the number of teenage accidents will be reduced.

During my time in high school there were only two occasions when driving was addressed. One was during a semester long class about driver safety education that every student took before getting their license. The second occasion was a prom demonstration. If teenage driving is to change then there must be more programs in place to educate high school students. Driving should be addressed at least twice a year, not just twice in a high school career as I experienced. The way it is addressed is also important. The more personal that an administration can make a presentation on driving, the greater the impact on a student; presentations should be made by community members, parents, local cops, and other familiar faces teenagers can recognize. Repeated, personal reminders of the dangers of driving irresponsibly, whether that be going too fast, not wearing a seatbelt, or driving distractedly, can spark the beginnings of change in the attitude of young drivers.

While efforts by school administrations may spark a change, the most important step is the recruitment of student ambassadors for safe driving. Teenagers change their perceptions based on the opinions of their peers. There must be students who set examples as safe drivers and speak out about safe driving to their classmates. A movement towards safe driving requires willing participation by students who have the ability to lead the social shift necessary to reduce teenage driving accidents. These students must not only believe that it is necessary to shift the perception of driving, but also put it into practice when they are driving. If one teen is an advocate for safe driving and practices safe driving when they are out driving with their friends; they will set an example that over time will have an effect on their friends’ driving, which in turn will spread to the rest of the school as more and more people becomes safe drivers.

The final step, and hardest to complete, is a societal change towards better driving. The first two steps of the process could work perfectly and be for nothing if the final step is not instituted. America must find a way to reduce the dangerous driving habits of its older population or they will undermine any efforts made in schools or by teens to change the teen perception of driving. For example, imagine a teenager is driving down the highway having been recently convinced through the use of the first two steps to change the way that they drive. Passing the teen on the left are adults driving fifteen to twenty miles per hour faster than the teen so the teen speeds up, only to find that when he or she is going five to ten miles over the speed limit, they are still being passed. The teenager notices that in some of these cars people are eating as they drive, talking on the phone, and only about half of the people are wearing their seatbelts. As the teenager continues driving, surrounded by this behavior, any safe driving behavior this teenager learned will be slowly be pushed out by the examples of bad behavior witnessed on the road. Society must change in order to ensure that teenage drivers remain committed to change.

Three steps sounds like a simple way to solve one of the biggest problems facing American teenagers, but it will be harder to put into practice. It requires changes in every community across America and an investment in change from all of its citizens. However, while it may be difficult to put into practice it is something that must be done if we are to reduce serious injuries and fatalities among American teenagers.