If you're the parent of a new driver, these facts will keep you up at night: Traffic crashes rank as the number-one killer of American teenagers. Teen drivers have the highest collision rate of any age group, and teens who have driven one year or less have the worst crash rates by far.
Behind the wheel, teens endanger not only themselves, but also everyone else on the road. In fact, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that pedestrians, passengers and occupants of other cars comprise nearly two out of three fatalities in teen crashes.
You can do more than simply lose sleep. Although you can never absolutely, positively crash-proof a new driver, the following 10 steps will reduce the risks in a big way.
1) Size up your teen's maturity. In assessing your teen's readiness to drive, the ability to make good decisions counts more than age. But measuring maturity can prove tricky. Certainly, academic performance can serve as a surrogate yardstick. Does your teen get good grades, complete assignments on time, and generally take responsibility for schoolwork, without your nagging? If not, you might want to reconsider handing over the car keys.
2) Drive the way you expect your kid to drive. Here's a discomforting truth: Bad drivers beget bad drivers. According to a recent study sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, teens involved in crashes are much more likely than crash-free teens to have parents with bad driving records, as measured by the number of tickets and collisions. This suggests that the teens' driving behavior is a reflection of the parents' driving behavior, researchers conclude. The correlation holds regardless of parents' educational level or socioeconomic status.
Like it or not, you become a behind-the-wheel role model for your teen long before he or she reaches driving age. Did your child grow up seeing you ignore speed limits, yak on the cell phone, or gesture rudely to other drivers? Then why be surprised if your kid does the same as a teen?
3) Practice, practice, practice. Your teen needs you even more after getting a learner's permit and starting driver education. Parents must stay involved. Regardless of how good the instructor is, parents must take an active role. The more involved you are, the lower the risk will be.
"Essentially, the parent should become the teen's practice coach," says Frederik R. Mottola, executive director of the National Institute for Driver Behavior. That means scheduling regular over-the-road sessions, knowing the specific skills and techniques covered in the curriculum, reinforcing them during practice, correcting mistakes calmly, and providing plenty of praise when your teen does well.
4) Just say no to peer passengers and night driving. Statistics overwhelmingly identify driving at night and having other teens as passengers as the two biggest risk factors for teens. The more passengers, the higher the risk. Such stats have prompted states to pass graduated driver licensing laws that phase in night driving and the number of passengers. A study sponsored by the AAA Foundation shows that such legal restrictions really do reduce new-driver crash rates-but you can do even better. Setting stricter curfews and prohibiting all nonfamily teen passengers for the first few months of driving are ways to give your teen the chance to log valuable solo time in lower-risk conditions.
5) Limit other distractions. Cell phones, CDs, iPods, fast food, mascarathe list of potentially dangerous behind-the-wheel distractions goes on and on. Of course, you can't monitor your teen's behavior every minute in the car, but you can model safe behavior by avoiding such distractions yourself. And insist that your teen not eat, use a phone, root around for CDs, or scroll through iPod playlists while the vehicle is moving.
6) Set clear consequences and stick to them. Just as traffic-law violations earn tickets and other penalties, violations of family driving rules should bring consequences, too. Depending on the offense, penalties might include extra chores, fewer driving hours, restrictions on the number of passengers allowed, and the loss of driving privileges for a specified period of time.
Good behavior should have consequences, too. Experts emphasize that positive feedbackespecially rewards for good behaviorreinforces the learning process for new drivers.
7) Put everything in writing. Once you and your teen agree upon the conditions and restrictions for driving privileges-as well as the consequences for violating themspell them out on paper, just to make everything clear. Of course, your teen must agree to wear his or her seat belt, observe speed limits, say no to alcohol and drugs, and obey other laws. But the agreement should also spell out your teen's responsibilities to maintain the vehicle and pay for driving expenses. How much should he or she contribute to gas, regular upkeep and insurance? You can decide, based on your own financial circumstances.
8) Schedule Sunday summits. According to the AAA Foundation study, parental communication ranks as one of the most important traits separating crash-free teens from crash-prone ones. Simply put, better parent-teen communication leads to better driving.
How can you tackle a problem that has plagued parents for generations? For starters, hold regular "Sunday summits." Gather at the kitchen table every few weeks to review your teen's driving performance, as well as the conditions and restrictions you've set, and if there have been no violations after 90 days, then maybe you can agree to let your teen have the car an hour later on weekends or some other reward.
9) Get high-tech help. Although you can't ride everywhere with your teen to monitor his or her driving habits, you can do the next best thing. Several companies offer event data recordersso-called "black boxes" that keep track of maximum speed, acceleration rates, instances of hard braking, and other parameters that indicate aggressive driving. Some EDRs even sound alarms when the vehicle exceeds certain pre-set limits. They cost $200 plus installation.
Understandably, many teens might balk at what they consider electronic eavesdropping. Whatever you do, don't install an EDR surreptitiously. Secrecy only defeats the EDR's real purposediscouraging risky behavior. For example, you want your teen to think twice about speeding, knowing the EDR will catch the incident even if the police don't. But you must commit to faithfully downloading EDR readouts and reviewing them together in your Sunday summits. Better yet, use an EDR to monitor your own driving behavior and share the results with your teen. That way, everyone will view the black box as a family safety check, not just a tool to snoop on kids.
10) Let your teen use the safest car. Often, the family's oldest car becomes the hand-me-down teenmobile, even though it may not be the wisest choice. It stands to reason that the least experienced driver should use the safest car.
Size matters in a collision, and large sedans make up in crashworthiness what they lack in cool. The latest safety technology-side airbags, anti-lock brakes and stability control, for example-helps, too, if you have a vehicle so equipped. Absolutely avoid small, high-powered sports cars, convertibles (which have higher injury rates), and SUVs (which tend to roll over).
In the end, if all of your efforts fail and your teen does have a crash, still you've done your best to maximize protection.
Joseph D. Younger is the automotive editor of Car & Travel magazine.
• aaa.com/publicaffairs. Click on “Teen Drivers” to download fill-in-the-blank parent-teen driving contracts, parent-to-parent agreements, a guide to finding information on DMV websites, AAA’s guidelines for Graduated Licensing Laws, a state-by-state GDL guide, and more.
• roadreadyteens.org. Tons of tips for parents and teens, plus Streetwise! (an interactive web-based video game that teaches safety), cosponsored by DaimlerChrysler, AAA, and others.
• aaa.com/teens. To order brochures, or, to access our Online Driving School (Florida only); AAA’s Approved Driving Schools; and, additional information that may be of interest to teens learning to drive and/or buying their first car.
Learn How to choose a driving school