For most teens, getting a driver’s license is exciting and liberating. For their parents, however, it can be an anxiety-filled time. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for teens, and teens are four times more likely to be in a crash than older drivers.
While these statistics are sobering, there are steps parents can take to help keep their teens safe. Leading by example, and talking to kids early and often about the risks and responsibilities of driving can help teens avoid accidents and become safe drivers, say experts featured on Be Smart. Be Well. Teen Driving.
"Parents play a key role in preventing teen crashes. Believe it or not, when asked whose opinions they listen to, teens most often said their parents," says Erin Sauber-Schatz, PhD, MPH, of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one of the experts featured on the site
Each year, about 3,000 teens are killed in motor-vehicle crashes. That’s eight teens every day. And every year more than 350,000 teens are treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in a crash every year.
The danger for teens is highest at night. New drivers are almost twice as likely to have a fatal crash at night. Add some friends, regardless of the time of day, and the risk for an accident goes up significantly. Two-thirds of fatal teen-driver crashes happen when a new driver has one or more teen passengers.
While some teens are more likely to engage in risky behavior such as speeding or not wearing a seat belt, it’s important parents understand that all teens are at risk for an accident. That’s because inexperience is the leading crash risk, with most teen crashes occurring in the first six months of having a license. It doesn’t matter if someone is a good student or a bad one. If the teen is a new driver, he or she is at risk.
According to research by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), these three common errors lead to the majority of serious teen-driver crashes:
The more experience a teen driver has, the less likely he or she is to make these mistakes.
"If a teen takes something that they’re really good at – be it sports, art, playing an instrument or even playing video games – and they think back to when they first started doing that skill, they probably weren’t very good," says the CDC’s Sauber-Schatz. "As they worked on that skill and practiced, they got better at that skill. It’s the same for driving. It’s a new skill that they have to learn and they need to practice."
Parents can help teens gain experience and become safe drivers through a variety of actions, including:
"Parents are vital to teen drivers’ safety," says Flaura Winston, M.D., PhD, founder of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at CHOP and one of the experts featured on Be Smart. Be Well. Teen Driving. "I often say driver education begins when a child is in a forward-facing car seat because they’re watching what you’re doing. You’re setting the example about how your teen should drive."
Parents should view each car ride as a teaching opportunity, pointing out how they handled a driving situation and why. "When I’m out there with my daughter, I’m always teaching," says Eliseo Saldivar, a driving instructor featured on Be Smart. Be Well. Teen Driving. "She’ll ask me well, ‘why’d you do that?’ and I explain the situation to her."
Parents can help their teens get the experience they need by spending as much time in the car with them as possible.
"Let them drive. Let them go to the grocery store with you. Let them go to church – short little jaunts that begin to build their confidence," Saldivar recommends. "If you just let them go with the instructor and not do anything for a week, then that teen will never get any better."
"They need to practice with the parent, so that the parent can pass on their knowledge and experience," Sauber-Schatz agrees. "Be sure that the driving conditions are varied, so that the teen gets a variety of experience and is gradually introduced to more complex driving situations while still being protected."
And be encouraging, no matter how white-knuckled you really are, Saldivar advises. "You always have to be positive because it’s a very crucial time," he says. "I have a lot of kids that their parents turn them off right away because they’re yelling and screaming."
To allow teens to gain experience, all 50 states have graduated drivers licensing (GDL), which put restrictions on when and how teens can drive. For example, GDLs limit driving at night and the number of passengers a teen driver can have in the first year of licensure. Restrictions vary by state, but all are desgined to keep teens out of high-risk driving situations (such as driving at night), while giving them a chance to gain experience in low-risk situations.
And they seem to work: Research shows that the most restrictive GDL reduce novice-drivers’ crash risk by about 40 percent. Learn about each state’s GDL.
Experts agree that parents need to communicate not only the risks of driving, but also their expectations for their teen driver.
"Teens whose parents establish fair rules are at less risk for tickets and crashes," says Bruce Simons-Morton, MPH, EdD, a senior investigator with the National Institutes of Health featured on Be Smart. Be Well. Teen Driving. "I encourage all parents to establish very clear expectations with their teens about safe driving."
But parents need to be mindful of how they communicate those expectations. "The style that works best for teens is where there are clear rules and expectations that the teen and the parent work out together," Dr. Winston says. "It’s not about control; it’s about safety. Parents need to work with their child to figure out what are the rules for your family that are based on safety."
Tanya, a mom featuerd on Be Smart. Be Well. Teen Driving, has been very clear with her 16-year-old daughter: If she demonstrates reckless, irresponsible or dangerous behavior, she’ll lose access to the car.
"It’s important to let her know the consequences if she doesn’t follow through," Tanya says in a video in the site. "She’ll know what I expect from her. She’ll know what she’s supposed to do, what’s wrong and what’s right."
The parent-teen driving agreement is a document that outlines the parent’s expectations for safe driving and the consequences for violating driving rules. Sitting down with your teen to discuss specific rules and consequences encourages conversation about safe driving, and also garners teen buy-in, Sabuer-Schatz says.
"It lets the teen and the parent work together. It puts both the teen and the parent on the same page," she says. "Then, if the teen breaks the rules, the consequences of breaking that rule are on paper."
Download a parent-teen driving agreement from the CDC.
When talking to teens about a driving agreement, the important thing is to communicate that driving can be risky, and that that the goal is safety, not control .
"There are ways that you can work together in a loving way," Winston says. "We’re trying to help them to get to functional, safe adults without dying first. That’s what we’re trying to get to."