Rite of Passage - A Parent's Role in Teen Driving Safety

Many parents dread the day that their children are old enough to learn to drive (ironically, it's one of the most exciting moments for a teenager). Car crashes are by far the number one killer of teens, and the rates are highest among new drivers during their first few months on the roads alone.

Here's the good news: although we think of teens as rebelling against parental authority, in fact studies show that parents are the single most positive influence on teen driver safety. Parents need to make sure this works in your favor, and not as a disadvantage. A recent study by Toyota Motor Corp. and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that teens who consider their parents distracted drivers are much more likely to engage in risky driving behaviors themselves. The most important step parents and guardians can take for keeping their children safe as they learn to drive is to model good driving behavior for them.

Nearly every state requires that parents supervise their teen in teaching them to drive. This can cause a great deal of anxiety. Last year, Safety Insurance and Safe Roads Alliance helped develop The Parent's Supervised Driving Program, a tool designed to improve teen driver safety by providing parents and guardians a systematic approach to teaching their teen how to drive. The program is provided to the parents of all teen drivers when they receive their learners permit in Massachusetts and is also available online. We encourage parents to take advantage of this tool, which emphasizes accomplishments, rather than a specific timeline, and work with their teen to tackle the guide's 11 lessons (including Parking, City Driving, Multi-Lane Roads). To easily track your work together, the program features a printable Supervised Driving log, as well as e-versions for Kindle, iPad and iPhone.

Here are five tips from The Parent's Supervised Driving Program to get you started:

  • Follow the three-second rule. Most teen crashes are rear end collisions. This results from a combination of following too closely and not looking far enough ahead. The three-second rule is an important safety measure designed to give drivers enough time to safely steer or brake to avoid problems and to encourage them to look further down the road.
  • No scare tactics. Instead, look to the theme of last year's National Teen Driver Safety Week (NTDSW) - Share, Not Scare. Pointing to research that “scared straight tactics do not change behavior over the long haul”, the theme focuses on communicating safe driving techniques and motivating positive behaviors such as always buckling up.
  • Practice in a variety of conditions. Inexperience is one of the most common factors in teen crashes. Make sure to build night driving into your time together, as well as practice during periods of fog, rain, snow, heavy traffic and in unfamiliar areas. Ensure your teen is comfortable with how to use the defroster and low/high beams.
  • Communication is key. In the car, keep instructions simple and concise. Avoid using this time to discuss “touchy” subjects such as grades and boyfriends/girlfriends. If your teen appears frustrated, emphasize calmly that mistakes are the normal part of learning. Remember that while you may be tense, your teen is more so, as he or she is in uncharted territory behind the wheel. Hold tough conversations about distracted driving and other family rules off the road.

Practice what you preach. As mentioned above, children are observant, and tuned into your behaviors. Don't get called out for doing the same things you are instructing them not to do, and read the Program guide ahead of time (at the very least, the refresher will lend yourself some credibility). Demonstrate your mutual responsibility by reviewing and signing the "Safety Pledge" contract with your teen; display it in your home.

Driving with your teen has the potential to be a frustrating experience (to say the least!) for both parties involved. The more experience they get with you before they are licensed, the less likely they will crash when they drive on their own. Studies show that when parents are highly involved with the supervised driving process that teens are less likely to crash, drive drunk, to use their cell phones and, more likely to wear their seat belts. Remember that teaching your teen driving is a multi-step process to build confidence and experience, which will help you gain trust in his or her abilities. And while many may dread the moment their teen asks about driving, it is also a unique opportunity to bond with them. Safe Driving.

~ George Murphy, Safety Insurance and Jeff Larson, Safe Roads Alliance