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Teaching Your Teen Driver How to Avoid Distractions

Lecturing your teen on driving responsibly won't work unless you set a good example. Put a brake on those bad habits and your kids will follow your lead.
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Illustration by: Taylor Callery

A few years ago I was rushing to get my daughter after school when I coasted through a stop sign. A policeman gave me a ticket, but luckily I was a few blocks away from her bus stop, and she didn't see it. I'm generally a safe driver, but my kids never hesitate to call me out when I bend—or break—the rules. That's a good thing because I know my transgressions, however few, can have a serious downside. According to a Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) survey, 91% of teens say they've seen their parents talking on a cell phone and 59% have caught them texting while driving. "Teens are definitely watching and paying attention to what adults do behind the wheel," says Angela Patterson, communications manager for Bridgestone Americas. "If moms and dads talk about safe habits but don't model them, their advice can fall on deaf ears." We've assembled a checklist of the most common behaviors everyone needs to steer clear of so that good driving becomes a family affair.

Digital Distractions

Road Risk: Whether chatting, texting, emailing or posting on Facebook or Instagram, we're connected to our phones 24/7. But anything that causes a driver to look away from the road for more than two seconds decreases reaction time and doubles the risk of being in an accident, says C. Raymond Bingham, Ph.D., a research professor with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Cell phones, including hands-free devices, are also dangerous: They cause five times more crashes than texting alone because people use them more often, explains John Ulczycki, a vice president for the National Safety Council.

Auto Correct: Let's be honest: We're all guilty of answering the phone in the car. I did it constantly, assuming it was my husband on the line about something urgent. Ironically, my 16-year-old daughter set me straight. After reprimanding me time and again, she now picks up my cell, saying, "Mom can't talk—she's driving. Let me know what you need and she'll get back to you." I, in turn, have stopped calling her when I know she's on the road. "Wait until you're pretty sure your child has arrived at his destination," suggests Dave Melton, managing director of Global Safety for Liberty Mutual Insurance. "And if you absolutely have to contact him, keep the conversation short." Technology is also your friend—there are apps that prohibit teens from using their cell while driving, but still allow them to dial 911 or phone you in case of emergency. Try AT&T DriveMode (free to AT&T customers; BlackBerry and Android) or TextLimit ($25 per year; BlackBerry, Android and iPhone).

Passengers

Road Risk: When I got my license in 1978, it was a rite of passage to take friends for a celebratory spin. Now that's illegal in most states, and for good reason. Teen drivers are six times as likely to have a serious incident when there's loud conversation happening in the car. What's more, nearly 40% of 16- and 17-year-olds killed in crashes had at least one person younger than 21 (and no older passengers) in the vehicle, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Auto Correct: All 50 states have some form of graduated driver licensing that restricts the number of passengers and/or limits night driving in the first year. This strategy works: Fatalities among 16-year-old drivers have been reduced by 38% and injuries by 40%, according to AAA. If your state is more lenient, establish your own curfew and no-passenger rules, and be sure to impose tough penalties—like taking the keys back for a month—for breaking them. "Every teen needs to know that these behaviors have consequences," Patterson says.

Eating

Road Risk: During our family road trips, we would hit the drive-thrus instead of stopping for meals. That meant either my husband or I would pull out, one hand steering, the other precariously holding a sandwich, then merge onto the freeway. When the kids were little, they were too immersed in their Happy Meals to notice, but now we set a better example. "If a teen's munching on a hamburger behind the wheel, he's thinking about his food—not the road," says Bruce Hamilton, spokesman for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Auto Correct: As you set up a driving contract with your teen, specify that absolutely no eating or drinking is allowed. Unless they're neat freaks, it's pretty easy to find out whether they're breaking the rules; mine usually leave straw wrappers, empty ketchup packets and sandwich bags on the floor. Before you automatically revoke driving privileges, Patterson suggests getting to the root of the problem. Not having enough time for a decent sit-down meal can be a sign that your kid is overbooked and may need some scheduling adjustments.