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How to Keep Your Teen Safe Behind the Wheel

Driving instructors may teach rules and regulations, but parents impart responsibility. Make sure your kid is ready to hit the road before handing over the keys.

By Stephanie Emma Pfeffer

Car crashes are the leading cause of fatal injuries for teens. But here's some good news: While the number of vehicle miles traveled on the nation's roads increased between 2000 and 2009, the death rate declined. That's mostly because states and communities implemented new safety laws to minimize danger. Still, parents play an important part in keeping their kids safe.

Parent Checklist

With a little preparation and a lot of patience, you can help your teen become a smart driver.

Free Online Driving Training Programs

Encourage your teen to brush up on her skills with one of these options.

StartSmart (AAA)

Provides safety guides for parents and kids and offers sample driving test questions, webisodes and newsletters.

 
Allstate Teen Driver

Prizes like music and gift cards are earned for making safe driving pledges, playing interactive games and creating a parent-teen driving agreement.

 
Teens Drive Smart (Bridgestone)

Kids can read safe-driving blogs, find out how to approach friends about dangerous driving behavior and watch videos about dealing with unexpected issues on the road.

 
Better Teen Driving (State Farm Insurance)

The "Tips for Teens" section includes stats on drinking and driving, risk factors and how to be a good passenger when friends are behind the wheel.

 
Toyota Teen Driver

Encourages kids to participate in an interactive road distraction challenge, test their driving IQ, make an automotive budget and learn to deal with peer pressure.

 
Driving Skills for Life (Ford)

Students can participate in safe-driving activities and learn about car care, while a coaching guide is available for parents and educators.

 

Launched in 2010, Ford's "30-City, 15-State Tour" invites teens to participate in real driving exercises in specially designed cars. Semi trucks roll into school parking lots all over the country and teens get to experiment with vehicle-handling during skids, wear "fatal vision" goggles to simulate being under the influence of alcohol, and text while trying to maneuver between cones. To nominate your kid's school as a stop on the 2012 tour, contact Driving Skills for Life through its website.

Apps That Keep Tabs on Your Teen Driver

Sprint Drive First: Locks your teen's cell phone when her car goes faster than 10 mph. Incoming calls go directly to voicemail and an automatic text message says she is driving. In case of emergencies, three phone numbers and three applications can be programmed to circumvent the block. Available on Sprint, $2/month.

Teenage Speedster: Alerts parents when their child is in a speeding car—as a passenger or the driver. Available for iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, BlackBerry and Android, $2.

Phoneguard Drive Safe: Blocks incoming texts and sends a reply while car is moving. Delivers a Google map link indicating the location and speed of the vehicle. Calls to 911 are always allowed. Available for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry, free.

Car Parental Control: Follow the position and speed of your teen's car; a color-coded map shows her route. Available on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, $2.

Speedbump: Keep abreast of your teen's performance behind the wheel by receiving updates on her driving skills and patterns. Available for Android, $10/month.

DriveSafe.ly: Text messages are read aloud without a driver needing to touch the phone. A customizable autoresponder option is included. Available on iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, free.

We've Got an App for That!

Family Circle's new app, Teen Driving Log, helps kids keep track of behind-the-wheel time required by states before they get their licenses. Teens can log hours, driving conditions and skills practiced before the big road test. Plus, countdown to license day! Available for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, 99 cents.

 
Vehicle News Around the Nation

Safe driving is a hot-button issue across all 50 states. Check out a few of these laws—from crucial to just plain odd.

New Hampshire: It's the only state without mandatory seatbelt laws. Politicians say wearing a seatbelt is a personal choice.

Chicago: City Council is considering a plan requiring all cell phones sold in Chicago to come with text message-disabling technology.

Wisconsin: Drivers can't type or send text messages while their vehicle is moving—but they are allowed to read them.

Iowa: To keep students in high school, some legislators are trying to suspend the licenses of kids who drop out.

Georgia: In 1997, the state raised the passenger limit from one to three for 16-year-old drivers so they could go on double dates. According to Senator Jack Hill, "some lawmakers did not want their daughters alone in a car with their date." (The age has since been raised to 17 to comply with the state's graduated license system.)

Montana: In 2011 the State Senate rejected twice a bill prohibiting the use of handheld cell phones and text messaging while driving. They said it was impossible to enforce.

North Carolina: Although adults can talk on the phone while driving (texting, e-mail and Internet use are prohibited), drivers under 18 with provisional licenses are not allowed to use a cell phone in any capacity—unless it's to call their parents.

North Carolina: Although adults can talk on the phone while driving (texting, e-mail and Internet use are prohibited), drivers under 18 with provisional licenses are not allowed to use a cell phone in any capacity—unless it's to call their parents.

Texas: Banned: The use of handheld phones and texting in school zones (since 2009).

Driving Dilemmas

Moms from our online networking community Momster.com had their questions answered by Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., psychology professor at Temple University and author of You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10 to 25 (Simon & Schuster).

"I'm trying to teach my daughter to drive but I get nervous and sometimes say things like, 'Brake!' too loudly. She becomes defensive and we start to argue. Is there a way for our lessons to be more constructive?" —Angelique

The day I got my learner's permit, I asked my mom to take me driving. She asked if I knew what I was doing, and after rolling my eyes I accidentally floored the accelerator—with the car in reverse. That was it for her! From then on my dad was my driving instructor. A new driver is bound to make mistakes, so parents in the passenger seat need nerves of steel. If you tend to be jumpy, nervous or unable to control your reactions when frightened, let another family member or adult friend fill in. Learning to drive is hard enough for teens without a passenger gasping loudly at every red light.

"My 16-year-old just started driving. He is very responsible but I can't help thinking something bad might happen to him. How can I cope with my fear?" —NevadaGreenEyes

You're not alone. For many parents, handing over the car keys is a scary moment. After all, your number one priority for years has been to protect your son and suddenly you're asked to allow something that's inherently dangerous. It goes against your strongest parental instincts. The best thing to do is spend time as a passenger while your son drives. Let him chauffeur you on errands or plan excursions where he takes the wheel. The more chances you have to see that he knows what he's doing, the faster your fears will dissipate. Then when he goes off on his own, visualize him driving by himself just as competently as he did with you. If he truly is a good driver, he's probably safer behind the wheel than as a passenger in some other teen's car. Your anxiety won't completely disappear, but it is likely to fade over time.

"My daughter hit a car on her way to school. The damage to the other car is $3,500. Should I take away her driving privileges and/or make her contribute to the cost of the damage?" —Complexstory

It depends on the nature of the accident, since there's a big difference between a crash caused by skidding during a snowstorm versus one caused by ignoring a red light. Consider her driving record. If this is her first incident and she's normally a safe driver, don't take away her driving privileges. But if there's a pattern of reckless driving, it's OK not to let her drive for a certain period of time. Regardless of whether this is her first accident, she should contribute to the cost of repairs or the insurance deductible, assuming she has a source of income like a part-time job or an allowance. How much she contributes—and according to what schedule—depends on her resources. Aim for an amount that will make her realize the seriousness of the situation without being overly punitive.

"My daughter failed the test to get her learner's permit twice and is too nervous and embarrassed to try again. Can I boost her confidence and encourage her to give it another go?" —KerryF

Let some time pass and don't badger her. When she decides she's ready to retake it, make a plan to study together and help her practice until she has the material down cold. That should help alleviate some of the nervousness. And ask her why she feels embarrassed. After all, the people at the DMV don't know her and won't care that it's her third attempt. If it's her friends' opinions she's worried about, she should retake the test without telling them. She can share the good news after she gets her license.

More Ways to Monitor Your Teen's Driving

For teens needing a little extra supervision, consider monitoring software. Check with manufacturers if you're in the market for a new car—Ford's MyKey limits speed and radio volume and provides seatbelt reminders, while General Motors is experimenting with Family Link, which can track a vehicle's location in real time. Or install yourself a device like Car Chip (carchip.com), which monitors speed and driving tendencies and lets you learn what happened in the event of a crash. Also ask your insurance company, which may offer reduced rates for vehicles with tracking software. American Family Insurance's DriveCam (teensafedriver.com), for example, can capture a teen's risky driving behaviors (swerving, hard braking and sudden acceleration) and provide parents with a detailed report.

What's to Come

Cars with minds of their own? Sort of. In the next five years, Intelligent Vehicles will use car-to-car communication systems to alert drivers of impending accidents. Expect to hear a collision warning when you veer out of your lane, or at a blind intersection if you're about to pull out into an oncoming car. Numerous automakers are working with the U.S. government to install these safety-enhancing Wi-Fi sensor systems.

FACT: The crash rate for teens ages 16 to 19 is four times that for older drivers, mostly due to immaturity and driving inexperience. That's why it costs more to insure them.

Originally published in the November 1, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.

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