Car crashes are the leading cause of death among teens. When you look at the risk of having a collision based on per-miles-driven, teen drivers are three times more likely than adults (defined as drivers older than 20) to have an accident -- and that risk is greatest during a novice driver's first year on the road [sources: CDC, AAA]. In 2010, on average, seven teens died each day due to injuries sustained in a car crash [source: CDC]. And of the 60 percent of American teens (ages 17 to 19) who got behind the wheel of a car in 2012, one-third of them were involved in speed-related crashes that year [source: Ferguson]. The combination of inexperience and risky behavior in a young driver along with distractions, and often impairment, can lead to tragedy, but following a few rules of the road can help prevent accidents and save lives.
Let's start our safety list with ways parents can help reduce the risk of their teens being in a collision just by setting up some driving rules of their own -- and enforcing them.
Set Basic Rules of the Road
Teens whose parents set rules of the road and enforce them are more likely to be safer while behind the wheel than their peers without that parental support and communication. In fact, having family driving rules has been shown to reduce teen crashes by as much as 50 percent (and to reduce the odds your teen will drink and drive by as much as 71 percent) [source: GHSA]. Be clear about what your rules and expectations are, such as curfew and number of passengers allowed (if any).
Also understand and follow your state's licensing requirements; for instance, all 50 states have some type of graduated driver licensing (GDL) program, which slowly introduces risky on-the-road situations such as nighttime driving to novice drivers over a set period of time. It's a program that works (it's reduced the number of crashes at the hands of young drivers by as much as 20 to 40 percent), but only when parents stay involved [source: GHSA].
Set a Good Driving Example
Being a responsible, safe driver sets a good driving example for your teen, and you can start that behavior years before your offspring wants to practice three-point turns.
What does it mean to model safe driving habits? Everything, from always buckling up to obeying the speed limit to maintaining a safe following distance (don't tailgate, and don't get aggressive). And because more than 100,000 drivers are guilty of doing this while driving, we'll say it: Don't text while driving. Being an example of good driving behaviors also means making good driving decisions such as not getting behind the wheel if you're fatigued or have been drinking.
In addition to practicing good driving habits when you're behind the wheel, make sure you give your teen plenty of time to practice and develop his or her own good habits while driving with you in the front passenger seat. That's also a good time for parents to practice the good habit of being patient.
Evaluate Whether Driver Education Classes Are the Right Choice
Don't make the mistake of thinking that completing a driver education program will make your teen a safer driver; in fact, there's not a lot of evidence to suggest that new drivers who've taken driver training classes have fewer accidents compared to their peers who did not [source: Ferguson]. And successful completion of those education courses, at least in some states, means a new driver can get a learner's permit earlier than her peers who haven't done so. It may also allow her to skirt other graduated driver's licensing rules, including those restricting the number of passengers and times of driving -- and it's these very laws that are actually keeping teens safer behind the wheel.
Driver education classes for higher-level skills, though, may not be a bad idea for your teen -- and for you. These supplementary classes are meant for people who already have a license but want extra training in accident avoidance, including what to do in a skid and how to anticipate and avoid hazards.
Keep Their Ride Mid-size
Car crashes are the number one cause of death among teenagers today, and putting your teen in the safest car available can only help [source: NHTSA]. That safe vehicle may not be the new sporty hot hatch, though, and in fact it's probably not. Keep your teen driver's car mid-size, which is a size that is small enough to maneuver while still being big enough to offer protection during a crash -- a 4-door sedan with a small engine and anti-lock brakes will fill the need, and keep in mind that it's the newer models that offer the better safety features and crash protection. Let's look at those, next.
Know the Safety Features and Crash-test Ratings
So, the size of the car your teen drives is important, but don't forget to evaluate how well the car will perform in the event of an accident. For maximum protection you want your teen in a car that not only will be safe during a crash (its crashworthiness) but one that will also help to prevent an accident from happening in the first place (crash avoidance).
The crashworthiness of a car is how well it protects occupants during an accident; here you want to evaluate such things as airbags (how many are there and where are they located) and crumple zones. Crash-avoidance features such as how the vehicle handles, its braking performance, whether or not it has anti-lock brakes (you want them), and electronic stability control system (which can help prevent rollovers) are important features to help reduce the risk of a novice driver losing control. Some car makers now offer in-vehicle monitoring features that will alert you if your teen is speeding as well as allow you to block incoming texts while the car is moving.
Newer models tend to be safer than older models, generally, but look at and compare crash test ratings for any car you consider allowing your teen -- and yourself -- to drive.
No Alcohol or Drugs
There was an alcohol-impaired-driving fatality every 53 minutes in 2011 -- that amounts to about one-third of all fatal crashes that happened during that year [source: NHTSA National Center for Statistics and Analysis]. Teens may not legally be old enough to drink (it's illegal in all states to sell alcohol to anyone who is under the age of 21), yet alcohol can be blamed for about 20 percent of fatal automobile crashes when teen drivers are behind the wheel. One in 10 high school students admits to drinking and driving -- and teenagers are drinking and driving nearly 2.4 million times per month, with as many as 81 percent of those teens drinking enough to have blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) higher than the legal limit for adults (0.08 percent is the legal limit) [source: NCIPC].
Insist on a no drinking and no drugs policy for your teen driver, but be sure to provide a safe ride if your teen does choose to drink or needs a way home after choosing to not ride with a friend who is under the influence.
Curfew: No Nighttime Driving
The majority -- 80 percent -- of teens can tell you that drinking and driving don't mix, but only a scant 3 percent know that driving after dark is also dangerous; automobile crash fatalities increase three-fold at night [source: Halsey, Berg].
Nighttime crashes among 16- and 17-year-old drivers most often occur before midnight, but most fatalities happen between midnight and just before 6 a.m. Distractions from teen passengers, as well as driver fatigue, decreased visibility, inexperience and drug and/or alcohol use are most often to blame [source: National Safety Council]. To combat nighttime driving crashes, most states with graduated driver's license (GDL) programs restrict new drivers to driving under certain conditions, such as daytime-only, as well as set the number of passengers a newly licensed driver may have with them until they are fully licensed [source: Chen, National Institutes of Health].
Nearly three-quarters of parents of teen drivers favor after-dark driving restrictions, but even your teen participates in a graduated driver's license system that has such restrictions, consider setting your own curfew, and enforce it [sources: NCSL, GHSA].
Teddy Roosevelt said that nothing in the world is worth doing unless it meant effort, pain and difficulty -- and no, he wasn't talking about teaching your teen to drive. Notice, too, he never mentioned you need to have an audience. In fact, teen drivers are generally safer on the road when they fly solo rather than with friends -- peers as passengers can turn a drive from school to home into a social event.
To the point: Teen drivers aged 15 to 17 with two or more peer passengers in their cars have a nearly eight-fold increased risk of having a fatal accident than when they drive alone. It's not (just) showing off, though; during adolescence the brain hasn't yet fully developed to weigh the consequences of risk taking, and teens may not be as good at identifying and evaluating dangerous situations and other hazards while driving.
Studies find when teenage drivers have teenage passengers they engage in more risky driving behaviors such as speeding (more than 15 mph -- 24 kph -- over the speed limit), swerving, straying from their lane or across the center line, running a red light, and maintaining unsafe, shorter following distances [sources: Halsey, Winston]. As many as 71 percent of male teen drivers and just shy of half of female teen drivers admit they get distracted by their friends in the car. And studies show those answers are truthful: Male teen drivers with teenage passengers, for example, are twice as likely to engage in aggressive driving and are nearly six times more likely to pull off a dangerous driving maneuver than when they drive alone [source: Curry].
Insist on Seat Belts
On average, about 88 percent of Americans wear a seat belt when they're in the car, a number that keeps getting higher each year. Except, that is, when we're talking about the most inexperienced drivers on the road: Only 77 percent of drivers ages 16 to 24 years old wear seat belts, which is the lowest usage rate among drivers [source: NHTSA, National Safety Council].
Insist your teen driver -- and any passengers -- buckle up; seat belts keep you from being ejected from the car during an accident, and we know that buckling your belt can halve your risk of being injured in a crash [source: National Safety Council].
Turn Off and Stow All Electronic Devices
"At this time, please turn off and stow all electronic devices." That infamous flight safety announcement will help keep you safe on the roads.
American teens send a lot of text messages; 63 percent of them text, and they send between 50 and 100 messages every day [source: Lenhart]. And almost half of high school students admit to texting (or e-mailing) while behind the wheel [source: NCIPC].
Any time you take your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel, or your mind off of driving, you're a distracted driver. A ringing cell phone, an incoming text message, your satellite-linked navigation system and information display -- even the french fries in the bag of fast food sitting on the passenger seat -- are all examples of driver distractions. And a distracted driver is a dangerous driver. In 2010, about one in every five car accidents that left someone injured involved a distracted driver, and the highest proportion of fatal crashes involved distracted drivers under the age of 20 [source: CDC NCIPC]. Insist your teen driver -- and this applies to drivers of any age, too -- power down all electronic devices before starting up the engine.
Vermont has introduced a bill to allow motorists to include emojis on their license plates. HowStuffWorks is totally on board.
Author's Note: 10 Rules to Keep Your Teen Driver Safe
What I remember most about driving during my teen years are two things: those bloody videos of car crashes (you know, the ones where they focus more on shocking you with gore than educating about safe driving techniques), and the much more pleasant memory of spending six months as my father's chauffeur while I drove supervised with my learner's permit.
More Great Links
- AAA. "Parent Overview Guide: Welcoming Your New Driver." (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.ct.gov/dmv/lib/dmv/aaa_teendrivparent2013-final.pdf
- Berg, Phil. "Own the Night: 10 Tips for Driving After Dark." Popular Mechanics. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/how-to/repair/10-safety-tips-for-driving-after-dark#slide-1
- Bock, Robert. "Graduated drivers licensing programs reduce fatal teen crashes." National Institutes of Health. Nov. 4, 2011. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.nih.gov/news/health/nov2011/nichd-04.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. "Distracted Driving." May 23, 2013. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/distracted_driving/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. "Teen Drivers: Fact Sheet." Oct. 2, 2012. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/teen_drivers/teendrivers_factsheet.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. "Vital Signs: Teen Drinking and Driving." Oct. 2, 2012. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/TeenDrinkingAndDriving/index.html
- Chen, Li-Hui; Baker, Susan P.; Braver, Elisa R.; and Guohua Li. "Carrying Passengers as a Risk Factor for Crashes Fatal to 16- and 17-Year-Old Drivers." The Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 283, no. 12. Pages 1578-1582. March 22, 2000. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=192524
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- Consumer Reports. "Cars for teen drivers." Feb. 2012. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2012/01/cars-for-teen-drivers/index.htm
- Curry, Allison E.; Mirman, Jessica H.; Kallan, Michael J.; Winston, Flaura K.; and Dennis R. Durbin. "Peer Passengers: How Do They Affect Teen Crashes?" Journal of Adolescent Health. Vol. 50, no. 6. Pages 588-594. June 2012. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1054139X11003600
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- Ferguson, Susan. "Speeding-Related Fatal Crashes Among teen Drivers and Opportunities for Reducing the Risks." Governors Highway Safety Administration (GHSA). 2013. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.ghsa.org/html/publications/pdf/sfteens_speed.pdf
- Governors Highway Safety Administration (GHSA). "Graduated Drivers Licensing (GDL) Laws." October 2013. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.ghsa.org/html/stateinfo/laws/license_laws.html
- Halsey III, Ashley. "Nighttime driving is biggest danger for teen drivers, study says." The Washington Post. May 6, 2010. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/05/AR2010050505689.html
- Halsey III, Ashley. "Teenage drivers with peer passengers at higher risk for fatal crashes, study finds." The Washington Post. Sept 26, 2013. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-09-26/local/42411100_1_drivers-fatalities-teen-passengers
- Holstein, Jared. "Top 10 Safe Vehicles for Less than $25,000." Car and Driver. August 2007. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.caranddriver.com/features/top-10-safe-vehicles-for-less-than-25000
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety -- Highway Loss Data Institute. "Beginning drivers and crash risk." (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.iihs.org/iihs/brochures/beginning-teen-drivers
- Lenhart, Amanda. "Teens, Smartphones & Texting." Pew Internet. March 19, 2012. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Teens-and-smartphones/Summary-of-findings.aspx?view=all
- Macek, Kara. "Parents Urged to Leverage State GDL Programs to help Reduce Teen Crash Risk During National Teen Driver Safety Week." Governors Highway Safety Administration (GHSA). Oct. 17, 2013. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.ghsa.org/html/media/pressreleases/2013/20131017ntdsw.html
- Mohn, Tanya. "The Mixed Bag of Driver Education." The New York Times. June 22, 2012. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/24/automobiles/the-mixed-bag-of-driver-education.html
- National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). "Teen Drivers." March 2013. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.ncsl.org/research/transportation/teen-drivers-overview.aspx
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- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "Teen Drivers - Parents & Teens." (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.nhtsa.gov/Driving+Safety/Teen+Drivers/Teen+Drivers+Education/Teen+Drivers+-+Parents+&+Teens
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) -- National Center for Statistics and Analysis. "Traffic Safety Facts: Alcohol-Impaired Driving." Dec. 2012. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811700.pdf
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) -- National Center for Statistics and Analysis. "Traffic Safety Facts: Seat Belt Use in 2008--Demographic Results." Aug. 2009. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811183.PDF
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- National Safety Council. "Seat Belts." (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.nsc.org/safety_road/DriverSafety/Pages/SeatBelts.aspx
- National Safety Council. "Seat Belts: Who's Wearing Them?" April 2009. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.nsc.org/safety_road/DriverSafety/Documents/Seat%20Belts%20Who%20Is%20Wearing%20Them.pdf
- National Safety Council. "Teen Driving: What Parents Can Do." (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.nsc.org/safety_road/TeenDriving/Pages/WhatParentsCanDo.aspx
- Nelson, Gabe. "Accident prevention features to affect vehicle safety ratings?" Autoweek. April 8, 2013. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.autoweek.com/article/20130408/carnews/130409853
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- Winston, FK; Kallan, MJ; Senserrick, TM; and MR Elliot. "Risk factors for death among older child and teenaged motor vehicle passengers." Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Vol. 162, no. 3. Pages 253-260. March 2008. (Oct. 26, 2013) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18316663