New teenage drivers are likely to do something innocently risky, blatantly illegal, or tragically stupid.
But before we argue about whether they should be licensed at 16, 17, or 18 years old, it is important to understand that at whatever age we allow them to get behind the wheel, they will still be novice drivers. And if they have not received proper training, the consequences could be lethal.
For the first few months, many new drivers are cautious. Before long, however, false confidence takes hold. Suddenly, they find themselves in a tire-screeching emergency that basic driver training did not prepare them to handle.
But they can be taught.
And that is why I routinely receive letters and e-mail messages from parents asking about a program that has evolved since 2001 into SkidSchool Advanced Driver Training.
So I'm writing about it again, shortly after another spate of deadly accidents involving teenage motorists. The parents who contact me are looking for help -- they are frightened by the prospect of their children getting behind the wheel.
I'm writing with the hope that yet another parent, like Debbie Barrowclough of Danvers, won't have a tragic story to tell. In 2001, Barrowclough's daughter Melissa died in a car crash. She was a passenger in a car driven by an 18-year-old who was racing another car on a public road. Since then, Barrowclough has been promoting the advanced driver training program.
I'm also hoping to make the point -- one more time -- that while we can't always teach teenagers not to do something risky or stupid, we can teach them about sight lines, the power of speed, and the visceral feel of crossing from the edge of control to beyond. Consider these scenarios:
Your 16-year-old is traveling at 35 miles per hour, following a pickup truck through a densely settled neighborhood. The workmen in the truck have not tied their gear down properly, and without warning it goes flying in a slalom-like maze of steel.
Can the young driver avoid the metal, or keep the car from going off the road and hitting a tree or pedestrian?
It may take several controlled turns of the wheel, but it's possible, and your child can learn how to do it.
As students in SkidSchool find out to their surprise, 35 miles per hour can feel extremely fast in an emergency situation.
Remember, too, that here in New England -- land of many trees, stone walls, and icy snowbanks -- one emergency turn often leads to more.
Your 17-year-old is driving at 65 miles per hour on the interstate. Suddenly, there's a disabled car just over a rise. Does he know to slam the brakes (before turning the wheel), keep the brakes on, and steer around the disabled car? That's the way it works with ABS.
Your 18-year-old, cocky with more than a year behind the wheel, has a habit of following the car ahead too closely. Has he ever sensed what it would be like to have that car suddenly hit its brakes?
Of course, you can't teach these drills on public roads in high school driver's ed classes.
''That's why they call it advanced driver training," said Barrowclough, who puts up her own money to help sponsor classes.
During class sessions, rubber cones, often laid out on airport runways, are used to replicate real-world challenges. A wall of cones is set up to teach emergency lane changes. A slalom of cones replicates the spilled load of equipment from a truck or the emergency that follows the sudden jerk of a wheel that might happen when a teen changes CDs while driving. The school uses a cone towed behind a chase car, running parallel and ahead of the student's car, to show that even if they are following at the recommended distance at 50 miles per hour, it is difficult to stop without rolling past the chase car.
In 2001, 180 young Massachusetts drivers went through the program. Last year, it was 1,030; the goal this year is 1,500.
Each new student is potentially a life saved, keeping him or her from becoming a member of what advanced driver training advocates call ''an army of ghosts."