How is my driving?

By Grant Yoxon

I Promise Program combines agreement between parents and teen and a 1-800 number to report bad (and good) driving

When children learn to drive and head off in the family car, parents sit at home and worry. The headlines about car crashes involving young drivers are bad enough, but the statistics are even worse.

In 1999, the year for which the most recent statistics are available, 410 Canadian teenagers lost their lives in car crashes. Another 29,321 were injured. Teens are three to four times more likely to be involved in an automobile crash than any other age group.

What can parents do to help their driving children get home safely?

Gary Direnfeld pondered the same question one day two years ago while driving to Toronto from his home near Hamilton. Although he was driving at the speed limit, a young man rocketed past in a sports car.”As I gained my composure I noticed a toll-free number on the back of a truck inviting calls to report driver behaviour,” he recalls. “I felt like reporting the youthful driver to his parents. Then I thought of my own son who would soon be of driving age … ”

From this encounter on a Toronto freeway originated an idea that has the potential to reduce accidents, injuries and deaths among novice drivers. The I Promise Program, which will officially launch in January 2002, is an approach to safe driving that combines a mutual agreement between parents and teen and a 1-800 number to report bad (and good) driving.

Gary Direnfeld
Gary Direnfeld

Mr. Direnfeld, a social worker, already had particular insights into the consequences of risky driving. In the 1990s, he developed and directed rehabilitation services for persons with brain injuries, many the result of car crashes.

After the incident on the freeway, Mr. Direnfeld went looking for a suitable accident prevention program for his son and was surprised at what he learned. One would have thought that driver education would help reduce accidents, but the effectiveness of driver education is unproven. Studies have shown that driver education is necessary – novice drivers learn basic vehicle operation and the rules of the road – but it has no verifiable impact on accident rates among novice drivers.

In fact, an evaluation of Ontario’s graduated licensing system, conducted in 1998 by the Safety Policy Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, found that drivers aged 16 to 19 with a G2 license (the second stage in the graduated program) who had taken driver education courses had a collision rate 45% higher than G2 drivers without such education. While the authors of the report caution against interpreting this difference as evidence that driver education doesn’t work, it does indicate a weakness in programs that rely entirely on education.

“We have learned that education alone is actually of little value in terms of modifying teen behaviour,” says Mr. Direnfeld. “The evidence for this comes from sexual health research, cigarette smoking research, seat belt use and the (graduated licensing evaluation) research report of the Ontario government.”

In contrast, there is some evidence that commercial vehicle monitoring programs, such as those stickers on the back of transport trucks and vans that ask “How’s my driving?” and provide a 1-800 number to call, are effective in reducing accidents and property damage. A study conducted by the Hanover Insurance Company of Worscester, Massachusetts, in 1998 found that the frequency of accidents per 100 vehicles dropped 22%, while financial losses were reduced 53%.

Those “How’s my driving” stickers would become the genesis for the I Promise Program.

I Promise Program
The program consists of a comprehensive parent-teen “mutual safe driving contract” and a rear window decal with a toll-free number that other road-users may call to complain about or to compliment an I Promise Program participant.

The contract sets out explicit conditions, expectations and penalties. “The program encourages parents, as role models, to sit down (with their teenage driver) and, with our contract, discuss the issues related most to teen car crashes,” says Mr. Direnfeld. “Then parent and teen negotiate their mutual expectations about the use of the car and responsible driving behaviour.”

It’s not just the expected driving behaviour of the youth that is documented. Parents must agree to provide and maintain a safe vehicle and abide by the same rules as their child.

The sticker with the toll-free number is placed in the rear window of the family car. “This facilitates accountability,” says Mr. Direnfeld. “Reports are taken by a call centre and forwarded only to the family for the information to be discussed as determined by the parent-teen mutual safe
driving contract.

“We do not expect many calls,” after the program launches in January, he adds. “The contract reinforces safe driving expectations, while the sticker in the rear window serves as an ongoing reminder of one’s family commitment with respect to the contract.”

It is also encourages safe driving, as the Hanover Insurance Company study showed. Truckers become more careful when they know everyone behind them is a potential tattletale.

Naturally, teens might not like to display a bright red, white and blue sticker in the back window of the car, but Mr. Direnfeld notes, “Our son was actually anxious to go through the contract and get the sticker on the car as he knew that, for our family, this was the only path available to obtain the keys. He also knew that his parents were happy to be in a situation where we would be expected to drive safely. It was a family win/win for safety.”

Getting the program right for both parents and teens is important. The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, through its Plan-It Safe Program, has received $103,000 in funding from the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation to conduct focus group research to help form the final look, feel and content of the I Promise Program. Researchers will be meeting with groups of parents and teens to obtain their input for the final design of the program. The cross-border study also involves the University of Ottawa and the Kids Risk Program of the School of Public Health at Harvard University.

Following the launch of the program in January 2002, Plan-It Safe will provide a follow-up study on some 50 families to view their use of the program and the effect it has on their driving attitudes and behaviour.

The program has attracted the attention of insurance companies, who see in it the potential to reduce accidents and claims involving young drivers. In January, the Dominion of Canada General Insurance Company will make it available to its policy holders.

Mr. Direnfeld says the I Promise Program, which is registered as a private business, would be best delivered through the insurance industry. Registration costs $49 and includes the contract, one or two window decals and one year monitoring service, but “it is our vision that the program be provided at no cost to teens and families, or at least at the lowest cost possible” through the insurance industry.

A discount on insurance, such as is the case with driver education, might help pay the cost of registration. However, a discount must be approved by the Financial Services Commission of Ontario. Mr. Direnfeld is hopeful a discount for the I Promise Program will become available in the future.

Mr. Direnfeld is confident that an I Promise Program delivered by the insurance industry can reduce teen related car crashes by 10%. “A modest 10% reduction equates to 3,000 less serious bodily injuries and 40 less teen driver deaths annually.”

“While it should not come as any surprise,” adds Mr. Direnfeld, “the one thing every parent of a teen driver wants is for their teen to return safely each and every time they use the car.”

To learn more about the I Promise Program, visit

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