BIG DADDY IS WATCHING - Father finds a way to 'illuminate' dangers of road

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Two classic tales for little kids growing up are the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. In both stories lurks the Big Bad Wolf, the dangerous foe for the little girl and the piggies.

Col. John W. Blumentritt, Air Education and Training Command director of safety at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, remembers sharing these tales with his three children when they were growing up. But now, as his kids have blossomed into two young adults and one teenager, he knows that the "Big Bad Wolf" they face each and every day is on the roads and highways.

"The nice thing about little kids is you can get them to listen intently and hang on your every word ... they think their parents are geniuses," Blumentritt said with a chuckle. "But once they hit their teen years, somehow we parents seem stupider, and they start to tune us out."

So when Blumentritt was given a chance to spark some dialogue with his youngest daughter, 17-year-old Ashley, on the perils of the road, he jumped at the chance.

In early 2010, USAA, the insurance and investment management company, reached out to its members with teen drivers to test a new device in their vehicles that gathered information on the teen's driving habits, according to Michael Sherman, a USAA Corporate Communications partner. This pilot program enabled teens and parents to identify opportunities to improve the teen driver's skills through open discussion, Sherman added.

"I know it is a big, bad world out there when it comes to transitioning your children to driving," Blumentritt said. "Sure, you can sprain an ankle or break a leg in sports, but people die in automobile accidents. Running into someone else on the basketball court might hurt, but smashing a couple of 2,000-pound vehicles into each other is unfathomable."

The colonel's concern is justified.

"Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 15 to 20 year olds," Sherman said. "Immaturity and lack of driving experience are the two main factors lead-
ing to the high crash rate among teens."

Sherman went on to say that this lack of experience affects a teen's recognition
of and response to hazardous situations and results in dangerous practices such as speeding and tailgating.

These are facts that Blumentritt is all too familiar with ... not only because of his three drivers, who all fall into high-risk categories because of their ages, but because of the thousands of young Airmen he is responsible for who also reside in this group. Once the colonel signed on for this program, a monitoring device -- which included a GPS tracking system and a sensor that could detect unsafe driving practices such as swerving, braking too hard and speeding -- was installed in Ashley's vehicle last summer.

"At the beginning I was kind of iffy about my parents being able to see how well I drive," Ashley said. "It made me nervous, and I'd get frustrated when the little blue light went off."

The "little blue light" was linked to the sensor device that would detect unsafe driving practices. Any driving transgressions would set off the light, which would blink on the dashboard.

"That light would go off, and I'd find myself apologizing to it," Ashley said. "I'd be like, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!' "

Ashley said that at first, she was extra cautious because she wanted to impress her parents. But as weeks turned into months, she grew accustomed to the "little blue tattletale" and settled back into her comfort zone.

"My friends had a lot of fun with it," Ashley said with a good-natured chuckle. "One of my friends thought it was funny to brake-check (hit her brakes hard) when I was following her just to set off my blue light."

Most of the abnormal driving trends tended to be caused by defensive driving -- motorists doing illegal U-turns in her path or slamming their brakes, Ashley said.

"Ashley self-reported every transgression because she wanted to preemptively clear her name," Blumentritt said with a laugh. "But I was surprised by the number of abnormal reports that were linked to defensive driving. That prompted me to start watching my own behavior and noticing how many times in downtown San Antonio I have to be attentive and avoid a vehicle, brake quickly, turn sharply. Defensive driving is not necessarily comfortable driving."

After nearly five months with "big daddy" watching, the Blumentritts were happy with the results.

"Overall it was a great experience and helped make me a better defensive driver," Ashley said. "I'm glad I did it."

Her dad agreed.

"Anything that you can do to talk to your teenagers about driving safety is a teaching moment, and by default, a good thing," he said. "They may act like they don't want to hear it, they may push back, they may get bored; but the bottom line is, if it's important to you, it's going to be important to them."