Raising Safe Teen Drivers
By Kathy Pride
I remember the day my oldest son (now almost 25) first took control of the steering wheel of one of our vehicles as if it were yesterday. He was ready for his first official driving lesson with my husband as instructor.
I waved to them as my husband drove our new student to a large, empty parking lot and I left to take a walk. Life was good, until I got home and saw the car in the driveway. The windshield was cracked, and deflated bloody airbags drooped against the front seats like balloons that had lost their helium. Horrific images flashed through my mind, yet deep down I knew they had to be OK, or the car wouldn’t be there.
That morning’s lesson cured my son from ever learning standard shift and cured my husband of rushing his junior driver. Our son was fifteen at the time, too young to legally hold a driver’s permit in our state.
That morning I understood the necessity of clearly establishing and following rules when it comes to teenage drivers (and sometimes the parents who are teaching too!)
Enter the concept of a “Teen Driver Contract” a document I highly recommend for every family unit about to enter the world of teen drivers, increased insurance premiums, and rapidly graying parental hair.
Consider the following statistics related to teenage drivers:
- Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death in the 13-19 age-groups. This accounts for nearly one third of the fatalities in this age group.
- Those aged 16-19 have the highest traffic related fatality rate of all age groups.
- Traffic accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries and disability among youth.
- The younger the driver the higher the risk, the most occurring with sixteen year old drivers.
There are several factors which contribute to these sobering statistics and include:
- Inexperience. Your teen probably thinks he has the experience of someone who has been driving a long, long time. It’s part of that invincibility phenomena of being a teenager. But the years of riding in the passenger seat don’t count when it comes to being an experienced driver.
- Bravado. The invincibility factor plays a role here as well. The bravado teenagers feel may be well suited to certain situations, but driving is not one of them.
- Speeding and Racing. It is well known that teen drivers tend to drive too fast. Combine this with their bravado and inexperience, and well, it isn’t good news.
- Drugs and Alcohol. According to statistics collected in 2001, 26 percent of 16-20 year old drivers who were fatally injured in crashes had blood alcohol concentrations of .08 or more. But it’s not only alcohol that is a problem. Marijuana is known to affect reaction times and perception, so toking a joint and then getting behind the wheel of a car can be a lethal combination.
- No Seatbelts. Seatbelts save lives. Adult lives and teenage lives. According to the NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration) 41 percent of young people who die in passenger vehicle crashes are not wearing their seatbelt. This is one way parents can have a real impact on the safety of their teen drivers: Always wear your seatbelt and serve as an example to model.
- Choice of Vehicles. Cheap is dear, so the saying goes, and when a teen’s budget is stressed, they are more likely to end up with an older, less reliable car which also may not have the most up to date safety equipment.
- Too Many Passengers. While frequently overlooked, a recent study conducted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health found that the risk of deadly accidents among young drivers rose sharply with each additional passenger. In fact, the researchers found a strong correlation between the number of passengers in the car and the risk of a fatal wreck. A driver with three or more passengers had a nearly three times greater risk of a fatal wreck as one driving alone.
I believe one of the most valuable tools parents can utilize with their teen drivers is the development of a Parent-Teen Driving Contract. It is critical to establish open communication with your new driver including expectations, rules of the road, and consequences if the rules are broken. It is important that the rules be achievable and fair to the new driver. It is also crucial that if there is a rule infraction, that the consequence be tied directly to the infraction. For example, if a speeding ticket is issued, the teen must pay the cost.
Be sure to discuss (not dictate) the expectations and consequences. Debate is fine. You will have a higher rate of compliance if you include your teen in the process. Be sure you operate within the confines of your local law, such as curfew restrictions for newly licensed drivers.
The following areas are suggested for inclusion in your new driver contract:
- Curfew and Driving limits. What time do you expect your driver home? How far a radius is acceptable?
- Cost of car, gas, insurance, etc. Who pays and whose name is on the registration? If kids have a financial stake in the ownership and operation they may take better care.
- Cell phones, music, food, and beverages. I distinctly remember one of the questions on my driver’s license exam: “When driving your car, when is the best time to eat an ice cream cone?” The correct answer was “never.” It is never the right time to eat and drive at the same time, but how many adults do this? (Or talk on their cell phones?) Be prepared for lots of argument on this one.
- Grades. Grades are a great leveraging tool for the privilege of driving. Oh, didn’t anyone mention (to you or your teen) that driving is not a birthright of a 16-year-old?
- Emergency Contact information. Make sure they know who to contact in case of an emergency.
- Seat Belts. Not an option; insist.
- Crashes, tickets, violations, and speeding. It’s bound to happen; know and agree ahead of time how you will handle it.
- Number of Passengers. I know lots of parents who tell their teens absolutely no passengers for the first six months, including siblings. This may be a hard one for car-pool weary parents to accept, but in the interest of familial safety you can keep providing chauffeur service for another six months.
- Drugs and Alcohol. Make it apply to ALL passengers.
- Other. Any and all other considerations you may want to negotiate and include.
Once you have reviewed and agreed to the terms of the contract, including the consequences, spell them out clearly and completely. Then have your teen read and sign the following statement:
“I agree to abide by the rules outlined above. If I choose to break any of these rules, I will abide by the above consequences in addition to losing my driving privileges. During this time I cannot drive I will be responsible for making other arrangements for getting around.”
In addition, the parents will also sign beneath the following statement:
“I promise to do what I can to help my child succeed in following these rules. I promise to make time to help my child become a safe and responsible driver. I understand this is an evolving contract and promise to make myself available to discuss the rules and their consequences when necessary and re-evaluate the contract periodically.”
A driving contract wouldn’t have prevented our initiation into the world of teenage driving, unless, of course it would have banned my husband from taking our underage son into a wide open parking lot. What happened that morning? He clipped a curb going seven miles an hour and the airbag deployed. (It was later found to be a defect on that particular car make and model) but illustrated an important lesson: Keep the communication lines open, follow the rules, and expect the unexpected!
Kathy Pride is the author of Winning the Drug War at Home,
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