Handing over the car keys to your teen is one of the most anxiety-ridden experiences you'll go through as a parent. And frankly, you should feel nervous. Car accidents are the number one cause of death among teens. Eleven kids die in accidents every day in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control.
But, you can't shuttle your adolescent around forever. Sooner or later, he's got to learn to drive. So what can you do to help keep him safe? The first step is to understand the risks. Teens are most likely to have an accident in the first year after getting a license. Distracted driving—most often due to drinking, texting or talking on a cell phone—causes most accidents. Driving with teenaged pals in the car also increases the risk of an accident—and according to a study by Bridgestone America and the U.S. Department of Transportation, girls are more likely to engage in distracting behaviors than boys.
When you first take your child out driving, start in an empty parking lot with no barriers, says Bridgestone America teen driving expert Angela Patterson Sikes. Since teenagers report that their parents often make this intense situation worse, it's okay to acknowledge you're a bit nervous, but keep your nerves under control. Patterson Sikes says, "constructive criticism is okay; yelling and freaking out is not so helpful." Below are a few more tips to help you along the way:
- Follow GDL rules. Almost every state has a Graduated Driver Licensing System, which gives young drivers increasingly more driving freedom as they gain experience. For example, California state laws require that 16-year-olds wait one full year before cruising around with anyone under the age of 20, excluding immediate family. These systems have been shown to cut teen driving fatalities, but only if parents enforce them! Research your state's GDL rules and follow them as you drive around with your teen—and make sure he does the same when he gets his license. It may be tempting at times, but never make exceptions to save gas or cut scheduling hassles.
- Set the example. It may seem like your spaced-out kid isn't listening or watching you, but teenagers definitely follow their parents' lead when it comes to driving, says Patterson Sikes. In the Bridgestone America study, teens said their parents engaged in distracting behaviors more often than they did. So buckle up, follow the speed limit and traffic rules, and avoid texting on your cell or applying mascara while you're behind the wheel.
- Consider your teen's temperament. Rob Schermerhorn, Professional Driver Coach and owner of Delta Vee Motorsports LLC, says teens' driving styles vary, depending on the teen's personality. Some teens are cocky, over-confident and prone to taking risks, while others are so timid behind the wheel that they may not want to learn to drive at all. Tailor your approach to your teen's personality. Take a strong hand with a risk-taking teen—set firm rules and stick to them. If your teen is reluctant to try his hand at driving, don't force him. Instead, offer support and encouragement for when he's ready to give it a go.
- Sign a contract. Before you hand over the keys, sit down with your teen and draw up a contract that includes driving rules—and the consequences for breaking them. "This one step alleviates a lot of headaches later," according to Patterson Sikes. What should the contract include? Insist that your teen wears a seat belt, doesn't text or talk on the phone while driving and has the car back in the driveway by curfew. Alcohol and drugs, of course, are an absolute no-no. By establishing this contract together, your teen will have a say in the rules, and be more hesitant to go against your wishes and suffer the consequences down the road.
- Understand your teen's limitations. The part of the brain that understands risk doesn't fully develop until a person's early twenties, so check in often with your high school daredevil. No teen, no matter how ready or mature, is a completely safe driver. Check in with your teen periodically even if he seems ready for the road—for biology's sake.
- Set geographical boundaries. Your beginning driver's learning several skills at once, so he shouldn't be in charge of navigating just yet. Limit your young driver's trips to familiar areas and opt out of freeway driving until he gains experience on the road. Make sure he's driving with a specific purpose instead of cruising, as joy riding increases the risk of accidents.
- View a ticket as a learning experience. Hey, we've all been there. Chances are, sooner or later, your teen will get a ticket for speeding or running a red light. Don't flip on him or badmouth the police. Instead, simply insist that your teen pays for the ticket and attends traffic court, if necessary. A ticket early in your budding driver's career may deter him from unsafe driving behaviors later on.
Teaching your teen to drive is a process that should take several months, and even years. Talk with him often about his driving experiences and don't be afraid to take away the keys if you think your teen's too emotional to get behind the wheel, or you suspect he's driving irresponsibly. Your child will probably protest, but your continuous active involvement just may save his life.