With high school sports underway, athletic directors and coaches are busy juggling practices and games as well as classroom and administrative responsibilities. So asking them to take a few moments to review a pamphlet about New Jersey’s Graduated Driver License (GDL) program, is probably not on the top of their priority list. But if the information outlined in the pamphlet could potentially save a student athlete’s life, I’m betting it just might get their attention.
Driving a car, just like participating in sports, takes practice. You don’t excel without building skill. Safety is also essential. Athletes recognize how risky it is to take to the field, the court or the ice without the proper training and equipment. But when it comes to driving, do student athletes recognize the risk and responsibility that comes with a driver’s license? Are they as well-versed in the rules of the road as the rules of game?
Recognizing that car crashes are the number one killer of teens in New Jersey and nationwide, the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition has teamed up with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body for high school sports, to launch a first-in-the-nation initiative called the GDL Game Plan for Coaches to help high school athletic directors and coaches educate their student athletes about the proven principles of Graduated Driver Licensing. Along with information and statistics about how and why GDL works to reduce teen crash risk, the pamphlet also includes a sample student code of conduct.
Why target coaches? Players look up to and respect them. They trust their coaches to provide guidance and instruction that will help them succeed both on and off the field. And with so many teens driving to and from school, practices and games (sometimes early in the morning or late at night), ensuring that they not only understand and adhere to New Jersey’s GDL program is essential. That’s because the GDL program helps teen drivers build skill while minimizing those things that cause them the greatest risk. And the risk for novice drivers can’t be overstated — nothing claims more teen lives than car crashes.
Last year, four members of the Mainland High School (located in Linwood, Atlantic County) football team were killed and four others injured in a car crash on the Garden State Parkway. This news hit the Mainland community hard. The crash occurred as the players were driving to meet teammates and friends an annual end-of-camp team breakfast just a short drive away. This terrible tragedy, however, didn’t have to happen.
The young man driving the car was violating the passenger restriction of the state’s GDL program, which allows a teen holding a probationary license to transport only one passenger. This provision is important because when a teen driver has just one friend in the car, his or her risk of being involved in a fatal crash doubles. The GDL program also requires teen drivers to be off the road between 11:01 p.m. and 5 a.m. (40 percent of teen fatal crashes happen after 9 p.m.), to always buckle up and not use cell phones or other handheld or hands-free electronic devices. These provisions are important because teens have the highest crash rate of any age group on the road — a risk that doesn’t decrease until they’ve been driving for at least 18-24 months.
Encouraging coaches to put the GDL Game Plan into practice at their high schools has the potential to save lives. It also honors the memory not only of the young men lost at Mainland, but of the more than 700 other teens who have died in car crashes in New Jersey during the past decade. While this initiative targets high school coaches, it can be used by travel and recreation league coaches as well as any adult who advises or mentors teens. Whether you work with teens through a peer ministry program, scouting, student government, cheerleading, band or any other school or community-based activity, we urge you to download the GDL Game Plan.
Once you’ve reviewed it, include every member of your team — managers, parents (teens who have parents who know about and leverage the GDL program to help them gain skill and become good drivers for life reduce their odds of crashing by 50 percent) and even fans — in the discussion. Just like football, hockey and soccer aren’t individual sports, helping teens survive the most dangerous time of their lives takes a team effort. Working together, we can help student athletes not only have a successful season, but a safe one, too.