Teenagers, whether as drivers, students, or social beings, generally don't discuss their most important consideration--fitting in--with parents. They don't even discuss it among themselves. The correct attitude is being too cool to care.
How to fit in is absorbed from media of every kind. The underlying message is: cool teens drive, cell, text, go without seatbelts, do whatever--and if adults think it's dangerous and disapprove, that's all the more reason to do it. One PSA versus a hundred TV characters shown celling while driving--you tell me which message sticks.
I recently watched the pilot episode of Beverly Hills 90210. No seatbelts were used. You can't flounce prettily at the wheel, or be a leather-clad rebel, and wear a seatbelt. Cameron Diaz's appeal in My Best Friend's Wedding is expressed in her happy-go-lucky reckless driving. Her passengers are terrorized--yet charmed! (Audrey Hepburn did the same, but on a small motor scooter.) Dying young in a fast car is the essence of the James Dean legend, and forms more than one teen pop song. Jan and Dean never sang about driving safely. Wildly popular video game--Grand Theft Auto. What are Gone in 60 Seconds and Tokyo Drift about? Signaling your turns?
A teen's driving behavior is only partly about getting from Point A to Point B. The rest is invidious social display. Having a cell phone and using it frequently is a status symbol. Doing it while driving means you can multitask, have an important social agenda, and your own car to drive, too! Talking and texting on the cell while driving, even erratically, is one way to demonstrate wealth and social position. "Don't care if I do crash, daddy's a big shot and has good insurance!" (qv. Fried Green Tomatoes). A little crash--or three or four--by a sweet-faced teenage girl is whimsical and cute on Allstate TV commercials.
Adults reinforce this subtext, all unaware. Some adult men still speak boastfully of car crashes they got themselves into and survived. Some dads (I've heard them) even prompt aggressive driving: "Don't let this guy get ahead of you." "You have to just go at the light." "If you hesitate, they'll take over."
Resistance to overt adult counsel and establishing one's death-defying nervelessness seem as important--maybe more important--to teenagers than surviving to adulthood. The media subtext makes it something of a rite of passage to drive into danger and survive, as if the only event that can make you an adult is to be involved in an MVA and thereby learn a Big Lesson about Life And Death.
Now that there are new distractions (cellphones, iPods, laptops, DVD players, Garmin, etc.), perhaps the modern-day story of rebellion and daring is by the kid who says, "Rolled my mom's Camry talking to my girlfriend the whole time! She called 911!" Where an adult would say Reckless! contemporaries say Awesome. Teenagers have always behaved thoughtlessly and recklessly in pursuit of status--only now their status games employ heavy machines going at highway speed and involve juggling multiple distractions meanwhile. Because I can, one teen said of his texting.
I think it's up to adult drivers to pay attention to what's communicated to teen drivers by the media, by their own driving behavior, and by the way they discuss driving and relate their own driving history. Right now it seems to be one part Do what I say, not what I do and one part I once drove recklessly, and so may you.
Perhaps it's not a good idea to tell your kid--or any kid--about the crashes you got into at his age unless you frame it as a severe cautionary tale. It's probably not a good idea to chuckle over it, or make it some kind of daring war story (Totaled the car, walked away, not a scratch!). Just a thought. As to the media, we're all responsible for that, and it's a huge ocean liner to try and turn around. I wish for far stricter license standards--including no license without a diploma or GED--and more severe penalties for youthful careless driving.