When Ann He’s son turns into the family’s driveway, he doesn’t hit the brake—he just sails right in. Each time the car comes to a stop, Ann braces herself for the crunch of a collision.
“When you’re a new driver, you aren’t aware of the power you have,” she says. “He hasn’t hit anything, but from a parent’s perspective it’s totally giving up control.”
And that isn’t easy. Just at the age when kids feel they are invincible, they are given responsibility over a several-ton vehicle. And they’re not the only ones at risk; other drivers don’t know that a complete novice is trying to beat them to the traffic light.
Kids are at risk because they aren’t listening when parents remind them about rules and they lack the experience to deal with the unexpected. NHTSA statistics state that car accidents are the top cause of death for people aged 15 to 20.
Parents might be surprised, however, at how much influence they have. “According to our research, parents are the biggest influence on teens’ driving behaviors,” says Stephen Wallace, president of SADD.
Practice and More Practice
Most Driver’s Ed programs include about six hours of driving time. That’s not enough, says Andrea H., a professional driving instructor from Sacramento, California. “One of the most important things parents can do is give teens plenty of practice between lessons,” she says.
Perhaps because of stricter licensing laws, higher insurance costs or fewer public Driver’s Ed courses, teenagers are no longer rushing to get their licenses at 16. It’s not unusual for teenagers to wait until age 17 or later to get a license. The longer you wait, the more experience and oversight your teen will have.
It doesn’t matter how long it takes before your teen is comfortable behind the wheel. “Parents don’t need to add teens to their policies until they actually have a license,” says Monique Dufresne, a New Jersey insurance agent. “Keep the permit for over a year.”
Driver’s Education: Know Your Options
Public Driver’s Ed programs used to be the norm; however, these programs are being cut as public schools tighten their budgets. Private programs often fill the gaps. In some states, they are the only option.
Rebecca A. of Raleigh, North Carolina, sent her teens to classes at the public school. The program was free and convenient, but not perfect. “The school trained two kids at a time and the other student with my son was horrible—he had never been behind a wheel,” she says. Public Driver’s Ed programs can also be crowded and difficult to get into.
In some states, parents can teach their teens themselves using a state-approved curriculum. “As the one who signs off on the permit, you have the opportunity to require a level of skill the kids would never get in two weeks at a driving school,” says Katie M., a Texas mother who has taught her three teenagers to drive at home.
Auto Insurance: What Teen Drivers Cost
“Having a young driver on the policy will generally increase it by at least $1,000 per year,” says Monique Dufresne.
However, there are ways to bring rates down; many insurance companies give discounts for good grades and enrollment in a Driver’s Ed program. In addition, parents should avoid buying an expensive car for a teen.
Laying Down the Law: Teaching Your Teen to Drive Legally
Many states set restrictions for new drivers, including curfews and regulations on passengers. In most Driver’s Ed programs, students learn about state laws during class—but parents should reinforce them at home.
Katie M. used a hands-on approach to make sure her daughter got the message. “[My daughter] had to research statistics on teens with other teens in cars,” she says. An overview of relevant statistics for teen drivers can be found at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.
Earning a License: An Important Milestone
One day, your child will earn the right to drive alone. Hopefully, all the lessons you’ve instilled through endless practice will come back when they’re needed most.
Parents should recognize that getting a driver’s license is a meaningful transition in a child’s life—and one worth celebrating. Take your teen driving often, model good driving habits, and establish clear expectations—and you’ll create a safe driver for life.
Creating Safe, Confident Teen Drivers:
- Practice. Many states have graduated driving laws that require 30 hours or more of practice time, but some parents choose to spend as much as a year. Schedule several times a week to drive with your teen.
- Reward positive behavior. Parents sometimes dwell on teens’ driving mistakes. Be sure to mention when your teen is doing something right. Offer incentives along the way, such as rewards for no violations.
- Set clear consequences for breaking rules. According to SADD’s research, teens are more likely to maintain safe driving habits if their parents enforce clear consequences. Be consistent with punishments such as taking away car privileges for infractions. Your teen should know what consequences come with each infraction and why this behavior is wrong.
- Use a driving contract. Driving contracts help you set clear expectations. Here’s an example.
Model Good Driving Habits
- Your teen pays attention to your driving. Model the following safe habits:
- Don’t eat, fiddle with the radio, or talk on a cell phone while driving.
- Don’t speed.
- Always wear a safety belt.
- Don’t take out anger on other drivers.
- Don’t have arguments while driving.
By Jennifer Williamson is a freelance writer living in Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in many online publications covering childcare, family, and education topics.