Keeping Teen Drivers Safe

Health and Safety
Young Driver

Driving. When it comes to this American rite of passage, parents hold more than the keys to the car. They usually are the key to instilling safe driving habits in their children.

“Parents need to get more familiar with the risk factors around crashes, and then take steps to minimize those risks,” says Allan Ramsay, who founded the Atlanta-based Safe Teen Driving Club to help parents prepare their teens to take the wheel.

For David Marler, 57, of Houston, Texas, the preparation of each of his children was different.

His daughter, Alexandra, now 20 and a student at Penn State University, first drove a go-cart at age 10 on the sprawling ranch where they lived. “We put cones up for her to practice controlled driving, and we laid out different courses designed expressly to build motor reflexes,” Marler recalls.

Alexandra startled easily, so in the car Marler devised a game he called “Distraction” to help her stay focused on the road. While her father drove, Alexandra would ride in the passenger seat and mimic his actions on an imaginary steering wheel, accelerator and brake.

“She was fine until I would screech at her,” Marler recalls, describing how his daughter would immediately throw her hands in the air and screech back. “Until I could yell at her and she wouldn’t jump, I would not let her actually touch the steering wheel, even sitting in the driveway.”

Marler’s son, Nick, 16, was a different story because he is a “bit of a daredevil.” A technology buff, Nick started out with a computer game that simulated driving, but Marler found that approach lacking. “A video game in no way supplements as a simulation for learning how to drive, and I thought it would,” says Marler, who reverted to the old-fashioned method of spending more time together in the carand enforcing strict rules prohibiting distracting gadgets.

Driver distractions
Among the top causes of teen crashes are distractions such as cell phones, iPodsand even passengers. With each additional person riding along, the risk increases that a wreck may occur, according to the National Safety Council (NSC). Ramsay says parents should know their state’s graduated driver licensing laws, which usually limit passenger numbers.

Observing the speed limit and wearing a seatbelt also can help keep teen drivers safe. Speeding is the No. 1 cause of teen driving fatalities, says James Solomon, who develops and teaches defensive-driving courses for the NSC. “Remember when you were a teen? It’s more important to be cool than anything else, and that’s why teenagers don’t buckle up,” he says.

Solomon and Ramsay agree on several tips for parents to help their teen drivers:

  • Communicate. Don’t shy away from tough subjects like alcohol and drug use and how they impact driving.
  • Ride together. “The best thing that parents can do is spend at least 40 to 50 hours in the car driving with their child,” Ramsay says. “If they can put 100 hours in, that’s even better.”
  • Narrate the drive, whether the parent or the teen is behind the wheel. Point out other vehicles entering the highway, traffic signal cycles, pedestrians and cyclists, speed limits and other constantly changing factors.
  • Control teen driving privileges. Limit nighttime driving and driving in inclement weather until the teen is ready.
  • Negotiate and sign a parent-teen contract that sets strict policies against risk factors. A model contract is included in the NSC booklet Teen Driver: A Family Guide to Teen Driver Safety, available for $10 at or by calling (800) 621-7619.
  • Participate in defensive-driving instruction. The NSC’s Alive at 25 program includes classroom courses for young drivers and their parents; costs vary. The Safe Teen Driving Club offers the teenSMART collision-avoidance course, a series of books and videos that parents and teens work through together. The package is $119.95. Several insurance companies offer discounts on premiums when teens participate in driving courses.
  • Serve as a role model. “Your child starts watching you drive at about age 1, so by age 12, they know everything there is to know about driving because, lo and behold, they’ve been watching you,” Solomon says.
  • Keep it up. Remember that a parent’s job isn’t over when the license is in the teen’s wallet. Stay tuned in to how your child is driving.
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