To the parents of teenage drivers | Nandell Palmer

The tent pitched on the grounds of Decatur High School belies the enormity that has disrupted the lives of two Federal Way families.

As a parent, it gives me a kick in the stomach every time I drive past that makeshift shrine memorializing the lives of Derek King and Nicholas Hodgins.

Three days shy of their high school graduation, they died tragically when a suspected drunken driver rear-ended their Honda Civic near Southcenter Mall on June 9.

I first saw the de facto monument two Fridays ago en route to dropping off my middle son at his friend’s home, where his entourage was congregating before their eighth-grade dance later that evening.

I was so proud to see my boy dressed up in his dapper outfit, complemented with a fresh haircut, to celebrate his end of middle school.

But pretty soon I was silently harboring a bit of guilt. How could one celebrate in an atmosphere of grief, I questioned myself.

So on my way back home, I stopped at the tent, home to hundreds of cards, flowers, photographs, candles, written messages on white paper bags, among other noteworthy conveyances of love and adoration for the departed teens.

I said a prayer for the families, teachers and friends left behind to mourn their early departures. I asked a thousand whys, but I left there without any concrete answers.

It is every parent's nightmare to get that dreaded telephone call that his child had been in an auto accident. I cannot imagine what those calls must have felt like for the parents of Derek and Nicholas.

The million-dollar question to parents: What can we do about our children’s safety once they’re out of our sight, driving with their friends?

I cannot begin to tell you the amount of times I’ve heard adults blame teenagers for accidents long before the evidence is determined.

I would have had to be an ostrich with my head buried in the sand if I didn’t mention the carefree kind of driving that some teenagers are involved in once their parents are not around.

And, yes, there are parents who would swear that their teens are the best drivers on the planet. But I have come to realize that teen drivers are easy targets, and could be caught in the belly of the beast if they’re not careful.

Not long ago, my son was driving on Pacific Highway, and I was his passenger. I could not have been more impressed with his driving that afternoon.

Out of nowhere, we were broadsided by a woman who ran the red light at a cross street.

Despite her guilt, she unleashed a slew of expletives on us while we waited for the police. Only in movies or early documentaries I’ve heard such insults.

Had I not been present at the accident, I don’t know how that would have played out between my mild-mannered teen and that woman.

According to Cynthia Squires of American Family Insurance, while there are no foolproof ways to eradicate teen accidents, there are innovations that can set parents at ease somewhat while their teens are out driving.

Squires, who teaches insurance awareness to driver's ed students enrolled in all high schools in Federal Way, said that one tool she would gladly recommend to parents is the Teen Safe Driver Program.

A video monitoring device called DriveCam, which is mounted on the windshield behind the rearview mirror, captures sights and sounds inside and outside the vehicle.

Exceptional forces like hard braking, swerving, collision, etc., cause the recorder to save the critical seconds immediately before and after the triggered event.

This video, sent directly to parents via e-mail, is viewed by the parent and teen only. One other good thing DriveCam does is to alert the teen driver when his passengers are not wearing seatbelts.

One parent, Joni Atkinson, was happy to enroll her only child, Nelson, in the program this past January.

She likes the fact that DriveCam pinpoints high-risk driving behaviors. This gives parents the opportunity to coach their teens for improvement before dangerous behaviors lead to vehicle damage, personal injury or worse.

“Teenagers may think that they have the skills, but they are still inexperienced in some ways,” Atkinson said. “It’s great to have an angel on their shoulders when they’re out driving.”

May Derek and Nicholas rest in peace.

Learn more

For more information about any of these teen driving programs, contact Cynthia Squires at (253) 529-1957 or csquires@amfam.com.

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