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Crash-Proof Your Teen

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Behind the Wheel

Driver's ed and private lessons are worthwhile for teaching teens the rules of the road and basic skills, but you can't rely on them entirely, cautions Susan Ferguson, PhD, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). "Driver's ed courses don't reduce risks of teen auto crashes because they don't give students enough driving experience. In most cases that's the parents' job."

The "learner's permit" stage is your golden opportunity. Studies show that the time when teens can drive only with an adult in the car is the safest driving period of all. The first few months after he gets his license, however, are the riskiest, when driving solo increases teenagers' crash risk 20-fold. Every chance you give your kid to drive with you as a guide may be the experience he needs to avoid an accident. To ease the ride:

  • Start slowly. "It takes several driving trips for teens to learn how to get from Point A to Point B and to figure out basics like how much pressure to apply to the brakes to stop or how far to move the steering wheel to turn," says Dr. Winston. Begin in an empty parking lot, where your teen can get a feel for the car and learn to operate the controls. Once he's comfortable, move on to quiet streets, where he can practice staying on one side of the road, anticipate other cars, and learn to pull up to a stop sign.
  • Vary the experiences. Once she's mastered the basics, begin to expose your teen to different driving conditions. Teach her to merge onto the highway at a noncongested point, then later at a busier spot. Take her into downtown traffic. Give her opportunities to drive at night, in the rain, even in the snow, if you would do so yourself. "At this point, anytime you and your teenager are in the car together, she should be the one driving," says Dr. Winston.
  • Tackle teen tendencies. Studies show that teens speed and tailgate more than adult drivers do. They also often look only as far as the car ahead of them and don't do as good a job anticipating potential hazards, such as cars changing lanes, entering a highway, or stopping short. A young person's judgment and decision-making skills are still maturing until his mid-20s. Therefore, besides giving your kid lots of practice, help combat driving errors by teaching road rules that will stick in his head. For instance, "Count to three, safe you'll be." On a highway have your teen watch the car in front pass an object and start counting. If he can count to at least three slowly before passing the same object, he should have room to brake safely if necessary. Your teen may roll his eyes at your corny rhymes, but at least he'll remember them.
  • Spell things out. "When I was teaching my son to drive, the term 'slow down' didn't work," says Dr. Winston. "He thought 'slow down' meant lifting his foot off the accelerator, when I meant 'brake!' We pulled over, I explained it to him, and he got it." Also explicitly review road rules. "My daughter thought that you should speed up to pass through a yellow traffic light, and her friends would high-five one another whenever they made it before it turned red," says Dr. Ferguson. "I had to stress to her that yellow lights don't mean speed up; they mean stop."
  • Stay calm. If you're nervous or angry at your teen when he's driving, ask him to pull over and talk in a safe place. Discuss the route you're taking and the hazards you'll encounter before you head out for a drive. "When I first drove with my 15-year-old, Sean, I wanted to hold on to everything in the car -- the door, the dash, the window -- it was kind of like free-falling," recalls Rachel Collins, a mom of three in York, Maine. "But after nearly a year of driving with him while he had his permit, we both felt more at ease -- that is, until the day he got his license and drove on his own; then my worries started all over again!"