I learned my first painful lesson about teenage driving on a hot summer morning in 2002.

Our family was on a camping trip in southern Minnesota. My youngest son had just gotten his license, so we asked him to drive our SUV to the local gas station and pick up ice for our coolers. His friend, who was also 16, went along for the ride.

It was going to be a great day.

Half an hour later, the teenagers returned looking somber.

"Don't get mad," my son said with a guilty voice. Blood was dripping down his friend's forehead. "We flipped the truck."

Driving on the dirt road into town, my son took a corner too fast. The SUV rolled into a field, crushing the roof. The boys were lucky to escape the wreck with minor injuries.

Six weeks later, I was stunned by news of another car crash. This time it was my oldest son. Driving to school with five of his buddies, he rear-ended another vehicle.

Once again, we were lucky. No serious injuries.

These two crashes were milestones in our family's life. Not the kind you celebrate; the kind you're grateful to survive.

Tragically, they're the kind of incident many teens do not survive.

In the last decade, more than 68,000 teens in the United States have died in car crashes. That's about 19 kids a day.

For parents, fear and anxiety are the logical starting point when their kids reach driving age. It's a natural reaction, justified by the statistics. But I've learned that parents have the power to help their teen drivers beat the odds. My sons' crashes were typical, predictable and preventable ... if I'd known then what I know today.

Here are some vital facts for parents:

1. Nobody becomes a skillful driver in just six hours with a professional behind-the-wheel instructor. Your teen needs lots of extra practice time with a parent as the coach in the passenger seat.

2. Knowing how to drive is not the same as teaching someone to drive. You can learn about safe ways to teach difficult skills like freeway ramp merging.

3. Driving the same route to the grocery store every week is not good training. Your teen must develop skills by driving different routes, at different times.

4. When you're riding in the passenger seat and helping to watch the road, your teen is very unlikely to have a collision. This makes the learner's permit period a very statistically safe time. Make the most of it!

Some parents delay licensure for their teens until after age 18. That means that for many of those young adult drivers, they will not get adequate driving practice. Some research indicates they're crashing more as a result.

My sons' crashes fueled a new passion for me: saving lives by creating better teenage drivers. Teens can drive safely. The statistics can change as more parents realize that their efforts can help keep their own teens alive behind the wheel.

Jayne Ubl lives in Champlin. She created a DVD, "Roadworthy: A Parent's Guide to Teaching Teens to Drive," as well as other resources for keeping teens safe on the roads with her colleagues, Kelly Cusick and Mike Pehl. www.DriveSafeRideSafe.com

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