According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, automobile accidents are the leading cause of teenage deaths in the United States.

Some 2,700 teens aged 16-19 died in car crashes in 2010, the most recent year for which the federal agency’s website has figures, and 282,000 were injured.

So, the nation’s schools have rightly implemented programs that teach teens to be safer drivers.

Yet, suppose educators instead declared that cars themselves were harmful instruments of death and destruction with no useful purpose.

Then they began punishing students at all ages, even down to kindergarten level, for such “offenses” as drawing pictures of cars, bringing toy cars to school, or even mentioning the word “car.”

You’d likely think this was an extreme overreaction, a textbook example of irrational behavior that was likely to punish innocent students for harmless words and actions.

Now, substitute the word “guns” for “cars,” and you have a description of what appears to be a widespread mindset on the part of school officials nationwide that one psychologist and family doctor has called “psychotic.”

School shootings are horrific crimes as well as tragedies (though annual deaths from them run 1 percent to 2 percent of the automobile total) and there is every reason to try to stop them.

Teenagers also die in inner-city gang warfare and by suicide, but those are social problems, and guns are not the reasons they occur.

In truth, there are effective and ineffective ways of addressing any problem.

Schools’ “zero tolerance” policies that punish children for words and actions that create absolutely no danger to anyone are not only unjust, they border on ideologically motivated child abuse.

It’s often said that “Zero tolerance equals zero thought,” and “overreaction” is what happens when people go beyond the bounds of reason, allowing emotion to take over.

And when those in authority overreact, people’s rights get trampled.

Here’s a list of some things happening recently in our nation’s schools, as compiled by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds (in a June 3 USA Today column) and Fox News writer Perry Chiaramonte (in a June 11 foxnews.com article):

• Maryland: A 5-year-old boy who brought an orange-tipped cap pistol onto a school bus was interrogated for two hours (not allowed to go to the bathroom, he wet his pants) and then suspended for 10 days. In a different school, a second-grader was suspended for biting a Pop-Tart into a shape resembling a gun (to a teacher’s eyes, at least — others just saw a pastry with a bite missing).

• Massachusetts: A kindergarten boy was punished with detention for bringing a tiny Lego gun the size of a quarter onto a school bus, and was forced to write a note of apology to the driver.

• South Carolina: A 6-year-old girl was expelled for bringing a toy gun to school.

• Pennsylvania: A fifth-grader was scolded in class for accidentally bringing a piece of paper folded into the shape of a gun to school. In another school, a 5-year-old girl was suspended for talking about a Hello Kitty gun that shot soap bubbles.

Other stories around the nation tell of students being disciplined for just saying the word “gun” to another student, or drawing a picture of one, or wearing clothing with U.S. military symbols and slogans (one boy was sent home for wearing a T-shirt with the National Guard’s Minuteman statue logo showing a farmer holding a musket, long a symbol of American patriotism).

As Chiaramonte notes, children– especially boys — have played soldier or cops-and-robbers for generations, and punishing them “is turning adults into bullies and backfiring on kids.”

He quotes Dr. Leonard Sax, a psychologist and family physician, as saying such policies are “psychotic, in the strict sense of the word … out of touch with reality.”

Sax said there are more effective ways of addressing violence than by “disengaging boys from school altogether.”

Reynolds is more critical: “What’s up with this? It’s not based on any concern with safety. … There’s more going on here than simple school discipline. Who treats a 5-year-old this way? It smacks of fanaticism.”

He concludes, “I think it’s about the administrative class … doing its best to exterminate the very idea of guns. It’s some sort of wacky moral-purity crusade. If a few toddlers have to suffer along the way, that’s tough.”

Guns, like cars, are only inanimate tools, and like any tool from hammers to chain saws, can be used for good or evil purposes.

So these crackdowns seem primarily to be punishing boys for being boys — something many social critics say we have been doing for a generation.

And public-school “zero tolerance” policies, Reynolds notes, help explain why home schooling and private schools are becoming more popular every year.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:

mdharmoncol@yahoo.com