By Jane Parent
There are few places where the push-pull of parenting is more apparent than driving.
Parent: Driving a car is the most dangerous thing that you will ever do.
Teenager: I can’t wait to get behind the wheel.
Parent: I have spent years protecting you from danger, and now I am supposed to hand over the car keys and let you drive away?
Teenager: Um, yes.
So, how can parents prepare teenagers to be safe and capable drivers—and keep them that way? The good news: there are specific, proven steps parents can take to get the results they want.
For teenagers, driving is the first significant step towards adulthood, freedom, and independence. But make no mistake. The first year or two of driving are also among the most dangerous periods of your teenager’s life.
Teen drivers are twice as likely as adults to be in a fatal crash. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 13- to 19-year olds in the United States. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2013 car crashes took the lives of 2,525 teens. Half of those teens killed were driving the vehicle.
“It’s gut-wrenching, shocking that the problem is still this big,” says David J. Friedman, NHTSA Deputy Administrator. “16- and 17-year olds are far over-represented in fatal car crashes, more so than any other age group.”
Immaturity and inexperience are the leading factors in these deadly crashes, but at least 30 percent of teen fatalities are caused by drunk driving. Other impaired driving factors that frequently contribute to teen fatalities are drugs, distracted driving, and drowsy driving.
The statistics are sobering. However, experts stress, parents hold the keys to helping teenagers beat these odds. It requires sticking to what the research shows keeps teenagers safe before, during, and after they’ve learned to drive.
Step No. 1: Be a Good Role Model
“I always tell parents, ‘Be the driver you want your child to be before they start driving,’” says Anne Marie Hayes, author of 3 Keys to Keeping Your Teen Alive: Lessons for Surviving the First Year of Driving. “Your teen will drive the way you do, but with less experience.”
If you eat, use the phone, or speed, then don’t be surprised if your teen thinks that is completely normal driving behavior. “We all know that our kids take their cues from us. From age 8 to 14, you are instilling lifelong habits in your child that will either save or cost them their lives,” says Friedman.
Talk about safe driving habits early while you are still the primary influence in your child’s life. According to the NHTSA, the single biggest factor in fatal crashes under age 18 is the failure to wear a seatbelt. Seventy percent of teens who wear seatbelts say they buckle up because their parents insisted that they do it when they were younger.
“Teaching your child while they are young to always wear a seatbelt in the car will instill a good habit that may save their life,” says Friedman.
Step No. 2: Follow Best Practices
When your teen is old enough to begin driver’s education, seek out the best driving school you can find. “Don’t make the mistake of shopping on price and assuming that they’re all giving the same quality of instruction,” says Hayes. Ask around for recommendations.
“Word of mouth of other parents is very effective,” notes Hayes, “and you will hear the good as well as the bad.”
Also key: Familiarize yourself with your state’s driving license requirements. Most states now have “graduated licensing” laws that phase in driving privileges over the course of one to two years. For example, drivers in the “learner”—also called permit or provisional—stage are only allowed to drive with an adult in the car.
However, it’s important for parents to understand that states are not created equal when it comes to adopting “best practices” for graduated licensing. Some states are stringent, while others are much more lax.
If you live in a more permissive state—one that, say, allows a permit at age 15—experts recommend you adopt the more restrictive approach for your own teenager. You can start with the National Safety Council’s recommendations for graduated driver’s licensing (which includes no permit before age 16).
Step No. 3: Take Your Time
At the end of the day, building a safe, capable driver takes time—a lot of time—behind the wheel.
“The only thing that removes your teen from that high risk group is experience,” says Ned Overbeke of Overbeke Driving School in Orange, Ohio.
That’s why parents need to be prepared to spend lots of time driving with their teenager. Many states require 50 hours of supervised in-car experience, but “that is a bare minimum. A hundred hours would be better,” says Hayes. “New drivers have to think about every single step because they have no experience. The more they drive, the less they will have to think about each step,” adds Hayes.
Plan out driving routes, starting on quiet streets. Talk about how to do everything. Explain how to change lanes. Talk about how to approach an intersection. What to do at a yellow light. And so on. Remember, your teenager needs to learn about every possible situation he or she may encounter behind the wheel.
“I took my daughter out driving for the first time on icy streets in a Suburban,” recalls Jill, a mother of five. “She didn’t even know how to use the brake, and she ran right into a tree. I was trying to teach her a lesson about being careful—and $3,000 later, I learned that I was an idiot.”
Step No. 4: Keep Watching
The big day arrives and your teenager earns her license. Don’t relax just yet. In fact, say experts, newly minted drivers need to be kept on a short leash.
“Having a license means that your kid has met the bare minimum for competency,” says Overbeke. “He is the same inexperienced driver seven minutes after he gets that license that he was before.”
Restrict new drivers to familiar places that they know how to get to without GPS, recommends Overbeke. “A new driver has no skills, and when they get lost, everything just goes out the window.”
Also, continue to supervise your teenager as an in-car passenger. No big trips downtown, across town, or on the highway until they have more experience. Enforce the GDL recommendations for the first year your teenager is driving: only one teenage passenger in the car and no driving after 10 P.M.
Last but not least, consider a written Parent-Teen Driving Agreement in which you spell out the rules. The NHTSA recommends its “5 to Drive” plan: (1) No cell phones (2) No speeding (3) No extra passengers (4) No alcohol (5) Always buckle up. Have your teen sign it, and post it on the wall near the keys. If your teenager breaks a rule, then consider taking the keys away for a period of time.
What if your teenager doesn’t want to drive or take the final step to licensure (i.e. the test)? Don’t push if your teen is not emotionally or psychologically ready. Instead, consider more lessons from an instructor and additional practice to build the teen’s confidence.
“I give a teen about a year if they aren’t psychologically ready,” says Overbeke. “But in our society, a driver’s license is an economic and social necessity. Then it’s time to get a good instructor and help them through whatever anxiety or fear they are experiencing.”