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Crash-Proof Your Teen

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).