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Ages & Stages

Behind the Wheel: How to Help Your Teen Become a Safe Driver

​A driver's license used to be a rite of passage for most teenagers. The license was a key to growing independence from adults and new worlds of possibilities. But, the image of the shiny convertible cruising down the open road no longer reflects typical driving conditions today, in which the high costs of insurance, fuel, and cars, coupled with challenging traffic jams, make other transportation options and/or living options more appealing choices for teens and adults.

A 2016 study looked at the percentage of persons with a driver's license as a function of age.

  • In 1983, 46.2% of 16 year olds had a license. In 2014, just 24.5% of 16 year olds had a license—a 47% decrease from 1983.

  • In 1983, 87.3% of 19 year olds had a license. In 2014, 69% of 19 year olds had a license—a 21% decrease from 1983.

Nevertheless, the majority of teens will still choose to drive, and for some, getting that license can't come too soon. Or can it?

Some Teens Are Not Developmentally Ready to Drive Safely

In 2013, young people ages 15-19 represented only 7% of the U.S. population. But, they accounted for 11% ($10 billion) of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are nearly three times more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash. The chief reason for adolescents' poor safety record is their lack of experience in handling a car and sizing up and reacting appropriately to hazardous circumstances such as merging onto a highway, making a left-hand turn at a crowded intersection, or driving in poor weather conditions.

Additionally, teens may not yet have developed some of the motor coordination and judgment needed to perform many of the complex physical maneuvers of ordinary driving. For example, driving may be one of the first skills where teens have to coordinate their eyes, hands, and feet. Teens also more likely to miscalculate a traffic situation and are more easily distracted than older drivers and more likely to speed, tailgate, text, not use seat belts, and make critical decision errors that result in accidents. Teens, particularly males, are also more likely succumb to peer pressure, overestimate their abilities, and have emotional mood swings, leading to crashes. ​

What parents can do:

  • Give your teen extra practice behind the wheel. School driver's-ed programs and private driving instruction typically provide a total of six hours on-the-road training when the experience actually needed to become reasonably proficient is closer to fifty hours (two hours a week spread over six months). "Practice makes better," so provide as much driver education as possible.

  • After a teen acquires a learner's permit, by passing a vision test and taking a written exam, he or she may drive when accompanied by a licensed driver aged twenty-one or older. You can start with basic skills, then introduce other scenarios such as driving at night, on country roads, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, on freeways, at dusk, in rainy weather and so on. It's a good idea to ask your child's drivers-ed instructor which areas have been mastered and which ones need more training. You can get into the habit of handing your teen the car keys when you're out running errands together. There is no substitute for experience.

  • Institute a graduated licensing program (GDL). Although many states allow boys and girls as young as sixteen to obtain a license, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement, The Teen Driver, recommends that teens not receive an unrestricted license until age eighteen or until they have been driving under adult supervision for at least two years. The CDC reports that more comprehensive GDL programs have been associated with reductions of in fatal crashes and reductions in overall crashes among 16-year-old drivers.

  • A number of states have also added a middle step as part of a graduated licensing system. Passing the road test gains novice drivers aged sixteen or older (the minimum age varies according to state, as do the restrictions) a provisional license. For the next year, they may take the wheel independently during the day. But after dark, they must have one licensed adult in the vehicle with them. At the end of their probationary period, they are awarded a full license—provided that their record is free of moving violations and car crashes. Research has shown that accidents are more common when teen drivers carry teen passengers; some graduated programs limit the ages of passengers for new drivers under age 18.

  • You don't need to wait for your state to pass a graduated-licensing law to institute a program of your own for your teen and family. Depending on how your teen is driving, you can set the probation period at six months instead of twelve; or, you could prolong the learner's-permit stage for your teen from the usual period of six months to twelve months. Extend driving privileges at a pace that you feel your teenager can handle.

  • Spend an afternoon teaching your child how to perform routine car maintenance such as checking the air pressure in the tires, the water level in the battery, oil and transmission fluid, and the windshield-wiper fluid. Also show him or her how to change a flat tire. If you can afford it, consider enrolling in an automobile club that provides road service.

  • See to it that your child's car meets all safety standards. While it's an admirable goal for a teenager to want to save up to buy his or her own car, "beaters" may not be as safe as newer models with modern safety features.

  • Ideally, adolescents should be driving midsize or full-size cars equipped with air bags. Larger cars offer more crash protection. Avoid sleek, high-performance vehicles that may tempt teens to speed. Sport utility vehicles are generally frowned upon for teens as well; their higher centers of gravity make them less stable and more likely to roll over. Having a heavy-duty roll bar installed will greatly enhance their safety.

  • Set a good example. As a parent, you are a powerful role model. No speeding, no weaving in and out of traffic, no drinking and driving, no texting at the wheel, no fiddling with your smartphone to stream a favorite song, no fits of road rage because the car in front is poking along, and seat belts at all times. Many states today ban handheld phones and other distractions while driving.

Teaching Your Teen to Drive (Without Driving the Two of You Crazy)

Here are valuable tips for productive driving lessons:

  • Before getting started, discuss the route you'll be taking and the skills you'll be practicing.

  • In an even tone of voice (please, no barking like a drill sergeant), give clear, simple instructions: "Turn right at this corner." "Brake." "Pull over to the curb."

  • If your teen makes a mistake, ask him or her to pull over, then calmly talk about what went wrong and how the situation might be handled differently next time.

  • Encourage your teen to talk aloud about what he or she is observing while driving.

  • After each session, ask, "How do you think you drove today?" Let your child point out any lapses in judgment or other gaffes. Then evaluate his or her progress together. Ask what he or she might do differently next time. Be sure to offer praise where appropriate.

  • Keep a log in which you enter the hours in the car, the route taken, and your critique of each skill practiced.

Rules of the Road

Even after teens receive their license, they are still in the process of learning how to drive. A number of clear safety guidelines and appropriate penalties for non-compliance should be developed with your child's input before he or she starts to drive. These "rules of the road" can include:

  • No driving or riding with others under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, including marijuana. The National Institute for Drug Abuse reports that drivers with the active ingredient of marijuana (THC) in their blood were twice as likely to cause a fatal accident than drivers who had not used drugs or alcohol. Marijuana can be detectable in body fluids for days to weeks after use—higher THC levels are found in accident-involved drivers.

  • Because teens are easily distracted, insist that they have no more than two friends in the car at a time (if allowed by the license). Consider implementing a no-friends rule for the first few months of licensed driving.

  • No eating or drinking while driving.

  • Music must be kept at low to moderate volume, and its delivery should not be a distraction during driving. Smartphones, radios, CD players, and MP3 players shouldn't be "fiddled with" while driving.

  • Everyone in the vehicle must wear a seat belt at all times. Failure to use seat belts more than triples the risk of injury in a serious crash.

  • No nighttime driving. Driving when it's dark is inherently more demanding, especially for adolescents, who are four times as likely to die in a car crash at night than during daylight hours. In cities that have instituted curfews for young people, the teenage fatality rate has gone down by ¼.

  • No driving when tired, angry, or upset.

  • No driving beyond a certain distance from home. If your teen wants to travel beyond the boundaries you've established, he or she must ask permission.

  • No talking on a phone when the vehicle is in motion. Inexperienced drivers (teens) should not even use hands-free options and voice recognition technology while driving.

  • No texting when the vehicle is in motion.

  • Be extremely careful when checking online GPS via displays and smartphones, to avoid distractions. Better to pull over safely to a protected area to check location and directions.

  • No picking up hitchhikers, unless it is someone they know well, and no hitchhiking themselves.

Breaking any of these rules constitutes grounds for some form of penalty. Minor offenses call for a stern warning. Repeated violations and serious infractions will cost him or her the keys. For how long is up to you.

Parents have the obligation—and the liability—to help their children grow, in this case by stepping in and teaching them responsibility when driving.

Additional Information & Resources:

Last Updated
Council on Communications and Media (Copyright © 2017 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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