How to Tell When Your Kid Is Ready to Drive Alone

Maturity and Cognition

Adolescence is often characterized by impulsiveness, risk-taking, difficulty controlling emotions, intense concern with peer relationships, and trouble seeing long-term consequences. None of these makes for particularly safe driving behaviors [source: National Institutes of Health].

You could say bad driving is in the teenage brain – or more specifically, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for "executive functions" like problem-solving, multitasking, planning, impulse control, and attentiveness. This area of the brain doesn't fully develop until the early 20s, which means a 16-year-old driver simply does not operate like a 30-year-old driver would [source: National Institutes of Health].

That doesn't mean your teen can't be ready to drive alone. It does mean you need to take special care to assess your child's maturity level before handing over the keys. A few questions to ask yourself (and discuss with your child) are [source: Bosari]:

  • Does he/she follow rules?
  • Does he/she appreciate the consequences of his/her actions and avoid unnecessary risks?
  • Does he/she generally resist peer pressure?
  • Does he/she take responsibilities seriously?

These questions overlap, and you may not have all the answers. These are traits to watch for, though, in the months leading up to an intermediate or full driver's license, because they help indicate your child's overall capacity for good judgment. A child who respects the rules, has a track record of resisting peer pressure, and understands the risks associated with driving – and, of course, has excellent driving skills -- is a good candidate for going it alone.

Still, even the most responsible teen driver embarks on a high-risk first year on the road. And while you may not always be there to watch and advise, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of an accident.