Learning to drive is an exciting rite of passage for most teens — and a nerve-racking one for their parents. Especially when you consider the statistics: Within the first year of getting their license, as many as 40 percent of teen drivers have an accident. And while most crashes are minor, data indicates that every year 5,000 to 6,000 American teens are killed in car accidents and another 300,000 are injured. Novice young drivers also pose a threat to others on the road: Nearly two-thirds of those killed in accidents involving teen drivers are pedestrians or occupants of other vehicles, reveals a recent report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
But you have ultimate control over when and how your child learns to drive. Research shows that giving teenagers as much supervised driving experience as possible and setting the right road rules will make them better, safer drivers. "Many parents and teens see the driver's test as a major milestone, but getting a license doesn't mean teens are immediately ready to drive alone under all conditions," says Flaura Koplin Winston, MD, PhD, founder and co-scientific-director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the principal investigator of Partners for Child Passenger Safety, a research collaboration with State Farm Insurance. "Independent driving should be phased in gradually." Our road map, a sanity-saver for both kids and parents, can help.
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!"
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Questions to Ask Yourself
Is My Teen Really Ready?
While most state laws say that by age 16 teens are old enough to drive, it's up to you to decide whether or not your child's truly ready. Laurence Steinberg, PhD, professor of psychology at Temple University, a consultant on teen driving for the Allstate Foundation and author of The 10 Basic Principles of Good Parenting (Simon & Schuster), says that before giving the go-ahead, you should be able to answer "yes" to the following questions:
- Is your teen a good student? Does he do homework and other school-related tasks on time and well?
- Does she seem confident and comfortable when she's behind the wheel, rather than excessively nervous or overly confident?
- Does your teen show good judgment? Is he able to resist peer pressure to do risky or harmful things?
- Is your teen willing to follow not only state driving laws, but also the road rules that you set?
- Does he understand the concept of safe driving? A recent Allstate Foundation survey of one thousand 15- to 17-year-olds found that 83 percent of teens believe people can be skilled drivers without being safe ones. "For instance, teens commonly equate good driving with being able to handle a car well, such as going around a curve, even if you drive recklessly over the speed limit," says Dr. Steinberg.
Should I Spy on My Teen?
Modern technology offers parents some sneaky ways to find out whether their teen drivers are really obeying the rules of the road: For instance, airplane-like "black box" devices (such as those from RoadSafety.com) installed in your car activate a continuous tone if your teen drives above a set speed limit or neglects to buckle up. Also, a small memory card from the device plugs into the USB port of your computer for a readout of the driver's actions. Cost: about $300.
Global Positioning Systems (GPS) track where your car is or has been and how fast it is driven. Long used by police and emergency workers, they are now available to parents (such as the BigBrother GPS locator from Securacom, about $700 when covertly installed).
Or to view what's happening in front of and inside your car, you might install DriveCam behind your rearview mirror. The camera is triggered to record when your teen accelerates, brakes, or turns too fast. Then watch the events on DriveCam's Web site. In a pilot study of 12 teens in Minnesota, DriveCam reduced risky driving behavior by 75 percent. Long used by limo fleets and ambulance services, the camera is becoming available through high schools at $720 per year.
While these devices may buy you peace of mind and improve your teen's driving practices, they're no replacement for a driving agreement. "A driving contract says, 'I trust you as an individual, but I'm making sure that I'm being clear about my expectations,'" says Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston. "Monitoring equipment, on the other hand, implies, 'I don't trust you.' You have to know your own kids, and if you don't trust them, they shouldn't be driving."
How Can I Control the Situation?
"It's a mistake to give your teen a car right when he gets his license," says Dr. Winston. "Instead, you want to retain control over his car access in the first few months." Once your teen is ready for his own set of wheels — at least one year after he earns his license — follow these pointers:
- Think big and boring. Avoid sports cars (which create more temptation to speed) as well as pickup trucks and SUVs (teens are the top risks for rollover accidents). Large sedans, station wagons, or vans are safest and often cheaper. Check crash ratings. Log on to the Web site of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), safercar.gov, to see how any car you're considering (new or used) fared in crash tests.
- Minimize distractions. Satellite radio, multi-CD players, and other fun car accessories may dangerously distract new drivers. Save on the bells and whistles, and keep your teen safer too.
- Encourage responsibility. Teach your teen to pump up the tires, maintain the car's fluid levels, and have it regularly serviced. Consider having her pay for some of the charges or repairs. Having a financial interest in the car can make your teen more responsible about using it. Similarly, regardless of who pays for the car insurance, insist that she strive for good-student discounts (State Farm, Allstate, and other insurance companies offer reduced rates to students who maintain a B average or higher).