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10 tips for parents of teenage drivers

Every year, teenage drivers are involved in about 8,000 fatal vehicle crashes. About 5,000 teens – drivers and passengers – die in car accidents annually. Another 400,000 or more are injured, with 30,000 of them requiring hospitalization. Keeping teen drivers and passengers safe is arguably the most challenging of parental tasks. It's one that I'm currently tackling. Here’s some advice for parents of teenage drivers.

Teach your children well
As my children entered their teens, I was convinced my experience as a racecar driver, high-performance driving instructor, Class A Commercial Driver's License (aka 18-wheeler) holder and former reckless teenage driver (or so said the judge) would allow me to teach them how to drive safely and, at the least, not tear up my cars.

I was wrong.

I worked hard to download all my experience into their heads. They demonstrated ability maneuvering in tight situations: I made them show they could do with a car what I can do with a big rig, by negotiating the CDL skills-test course. They know how to anticipate – not just react to – challenging and dangerous situations. They understand the critical importance of wearing seat belts. They learned how to properly employ anti-lock brakes. Each received plenty of driving experience while on learner's permits. Both earned top marks from their driving-school instructors. Neither got a license immediately upon turning 16. One was almost 18 before she drove independently.

When an adult is a passenger, my children's driving is almost flawless. The rest of the time, it's not so good.

It might be their brains. Research shows that the area of the brain that involves impulse control, judgment and decision-making doesn't fully develop until humans are in their 20s. This doesn't absolve them of responsibility. Instead it means that unless the teen wants to be a safe driver, the teen won't be a safe driver. The worst teens either don't know or, more likely, don't care that they're driving dangerously. Many eschew driving safety and embrace risky driving. (I did.)

How to teach road safety tips
So, what's a parent to do? Here's my advice, based on seven months of having one and then two teens driving independently.

1. Delay. Wait as long as you can to allow your teen to get a full license and drive independently. The accident rate for 16-year-olds is considerably higher than that even for 17-year-olds. That's why some countries have moved the driving age up to 18.

2. Choose the right college. Pick a college that prohibits freshmen from having a car on campus. This eliminates the risk for nine months during a potentially dangerous time.

3. No passengers, no riding. Don't allow your teen to carry teenage passengers, and prohibit them from riding with teen drivers. According to one study, the risk of a teen driver being involved in an accident increases about 40 percent with one teen riding, doubles with two teen passengers and quadruples with three or more teen riders aboard.

4. Watch the boys. Since boys are about twice as likely to get killed in car crashes as girls, pay even more attention to your young men. Boys are bad even as passengers; research says both sexes drive faster and take more chances with a male passenger than when a female is riding.

5. Nighttime is the wrong time. Even if not required by your state, emulate the graduated license programs widely adopted across the United States and severely limit – or, better, prohibit – driving after dark. One study showed that the most dangerous time for teen driving is between 9 p.m. and midnight.

6. No phones or food. Discourage distractions when driving, especially cell phones (or other electronic devices) and eating. I have no idea how to enforce the former, but if your teens are as sloppy as mine, evidence of the latter will be clear.

7. Seat belts on. More than half of teens killed in crashes were not wearing seat belts. Lack of seat belt usage is linked to other risky behaviors such as speeding, driving under the influence and carrying multiple teenage passengers. Make sure your teens are wearing seat belts with this bit of skullduggery: place a piece of tape over the buckle opening. If the tape isn't removed or torn, you've got a problem.

8. Provide safe cars.  Give your teens every opportunity to avoid and survive accidents. Their vehicles should meet the latest crash standards and have airbags, anti-lock brakes and quality tires with plenty of tread.

9. Check up on them. There are several different ways to check up on your teen, ranging from satellite-based tracking devices to "How's My Driving?" bumper stickers. Ask neighbors to report unsafe driving. If they're reckless in the subdivision, they're probably reckless everywhere. I was.

10. Provide experience. Allow your teens to be your chauffeur for many months while they're on learner's permits. I remain convinced that the experience and lessons I offered them was time and money well spent. For instance, things would have been far worse had they not known how to properly employ anti-lock brakes.


Know that the teen years eventually end. And hope that you live long enough to see your offspring deal with their own teens!