Keep Your Teen Driver Safe and Alive
Last reviewed and revised on October 8, 2009
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
It terrifies me when my teenaged children drive. It's not that they are bad drivers; they are both responsible and careful. But they are teen drivers, and that, in and of itself, is terrifying. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), I have good reason to be scared.
Its December 2006 policy statement, "The Teen Driver," has some sobering statistics:
Inexperience is the major reason for these grim realities. Crashes are even more likely when you mix inexperience with risk-taking behavior that is part of being a teenager, such as speeding. Here are other risk factors for car crashes:
So what can we parents do to save lives? The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly favors graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws. Most states now have two stages for teen drivers. First, they get their learner's permit, and then they get a full license. GDL laws add a stage in between called an intermediate or provisional driver's license. Each stage has specific restrictions and minimum time requirements to give the teen more time to gain experience behind the wheel while driving under low-risk conditions to keep them safe.
Many variations of the in-between stage are possible, but data show that the GDL approach works best when:
Even if a state doesn't have GDL laws, legal restrictions on night driving and the number of passengers for new drivers can make a big difference. And improved (and enforced) safety belt laws as well as strict penalties for drinking and driving are always a good idea for drivers of any age.
We need to take a closer look at Drivers Education programs, too. Research has shown that such programs in high schools actually encourage early licensure of the youngest and most dangerous drivers and can increase the number of crashes, injuries and deaths. Most programs would benefit from more education time for young drivers as well as more supervised time on the road. Supervised road time has been shown to be more effective in reducing crashes than in-class education time.
Parents don't need to wait for laws, though. A recent study based on surveys of over 5,000 teen drivers showed that teens whose parents set and enforced rules were more likely to use their seatbelts and obey speed limits. And those whose parents set and enforced rules but were also warm and supportive had the lowest risk of crashing and were the least likely to drive drunk or use a cell phone while driving.
One way for parents to get actively involved in their teens driving is to have them sign a written contract. The AAP suggests that this contract specify:
You can see a sample contract and read the entire policy statement in the journal Pediatrics.
The same survey of teen drivers found something else that is important, and worrisome: Compared to teens who shared a car, teens with their own car had twice the crash risk, and were more likely to speed or use their cell phone while driving. Given that 70% of the respondents who said they drove alone said that they were the main driver of their vehicle, this is scary.
Parents who are thinking about letting their teens have their own car should think again. It may make your teen happy, and it may be convenient for you, but is either one worth doubling his risk of crashing? Teens should only have their own car if it is absolutely necessary (for example, if it's the only possible means of transportation to school) and driving should be limited and closely monitored.
As parents, we usually want our kids to drive. It can make our life easier as parents and it's a rite of passage. But this rite of passage is a particularly dangerous one. Talk to your kids, set rules, be involved. Their lives could depend on it.
Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.