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Crash-Proof Your Teen

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New License? Now What?

You and your teen should aim for 120 hours of supervised driving practice before she takes her road test. That's more than state laws require, but studies suggest this is how long it takes to cover a full range of driving experiences. And even when your teen passes the road test and gets her license, your job isn't done.

  1. Set clear, sensible driving limits to ensure your child's safety. "Teens don't do well when things are capricious, unfair or ad hoc," says Bruce Simons-Morton, EdD, chief of the prevention research branch for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). "They may not like the rules, but if they know what they are in advance, they'll be more apt to accept them, however begrudgingly." Research by the NICHD found that teens whose parents set strict limits on their driving privileges within the first few months of getting their licenses were at much lower risk of crashes than teens whose parents set no such limits.
  2. Learn your state's driving laws (log on to iihs.org for info). Forty-six states have passed graduated driver licensing laws, which, among other limits, restrict the number of passengers and the hours when your teen can drive during his first few vulnerable months with a license. These laws have slashed teen auto crashes by as much as 33 percent. But they're just a starting point, say experts.
  3. Draw up a written agreement. Sit down with your teen and create a driving plan for the next year. "Ask him, 'What do you want to get out of being a driver?'" suggests Dr. Winston. "Of course, he'll say, 'I want to drive wherever I want, whenever I want, with whomever I want.' You can reply, 'Okay, you'll get there eventually. But we need to slowly work up to it.' If your teen knows that he'll get what he wants in the end, he'll work with you on the steps to get there."

    Your teen definitely needs practice driving alone to learn to anticipate hazards without an adult in the car to guide her, but during her first month of independent driving, make rules particularly strict: Absolutely no passengers in the car except for a parent or other licensed adult. (Crash risk doubles when a teen driver has another teen in the car and is four to five times as high with two other teen passengers.) No driving after dark without an adult. Drive only on local, familiar roads and only in good weather.

    After the first month, crash risk drops dramatically and continues a rapid decline for the next five months or 1,000 miles of independent driving. At that point it plateaus to about twice what it is for people who've been driving for two years or more. One to six months after your teen earns his license, limit him to a one-passenger maximum, early evening curfew (8 p.m. or 9 p.m.), fair weather (a little rain is okay but no driving in a snowstorm). and no high-speed roads. After six months add one hour to the curfew, maintain a one-teen passenger limit, and begin to allow driving on higher-speed roads and in all but severe weather. Finally, after a year of having her license, if your teen has mastered each of the levels above, you can relax some of the restrictions.
  4. Be clear about consequences. Of course, there are certain safety rules that should never change. And if they're violated, driving privileges should be revoked. These include:

  • No driving after drinking alcohol or using drugs, and no riding in a vehicle with a driver who has done so.
  • Follow all traffic rules at all times.
  • No risky behavior (such as speeding, tailgating, or using a cell phone while driving).
  • No driving when drowsy.
  • Safety belts must be worn at all times. (NHTSA data shows that of teens ages 16 to 20 killed in auto accidents, 62 percent of them were not buckled up.)

While putting these rules in writing may seem unnecessarily formal, it's a key step in enforcing them, say experts. "Our research shows teens who complete such agreements with their parents are less likely to engage in risky driving behavior or to have violations or crashes," says Dr. Simons-Morton. "By spelling out the rules, you let your teen know you're concerned about his safety. He'll appreciate that and be more likely to comply." You can also add an "attitude clause," suggests Dr. Winston; if your teen argues about following your rules, take the car keys away for a while. Similarly, if he breaks the rules, make the penalties driving-specific: If your teen comes home 30 minutes after curfew, he loses his driving privileges for the next day; if he saunters in after midnight, he loses the car for a week.

Reinforce the idea that driving is a privilege, not a right. And since there's no real rush, make the learning process a gradual one with freedoms that your child earns with good behavior. This will help keep him safe and teach goal-setting lessons your teen will use on the rest of the road to adulthood.