It happens to every parent. You can try to avoid it but at some point or another, there comes a time when you must stare into the face of the abyss of terror and hold on for dear life. What am I talking about? Your teenage son or daughter learning to drive. For them, there is nothing more exciting, more thrilling, more adult than driving. For parents, it can be many sleepless nights, nightmares, endless strained and sore muscles from gripping the “Oh S**T” bar with a death grip so tight there are finger imprints, and an expensive Ms. Clairol bill each week to cover the new grays that have sprouted.
If your child is already there, you fully understand the anxiety and near heart attack moments that occur frequently. If not, prepare now. I’m really not kidding. There was one recent moment when my new teen driver (may I say almost licensed driver) decided to slowly get over to an adjacent lane in front of an 18-wheeler barreling behind us fast enough that it almost plowed us. Ironically we were headed to the hospital to visit my uncle, which was a good thing because I was pretty sure my heart stopped and I almost had an involuntary and sudden release of my bowels. This was one of many moments that my life (and the life of my car) passed before my eyes.
And I’m not the only parent. On one of my favorite comedians, Jeff Allen, did a blog post on his son learning to drive. He asked for responses from parents with teen driving stories. Below are exerts from Jeff Allen’s post and one parent named Charlie.
“One hour with him, and I came in the house with a tic on both sides of my face. I hit that imaginary brake so many times, I wore a hole in the carpet. It was as if I had some kind of mantra going, I kept repeating the same thing over and over again: “Tell me you saw the truck, tell me you saw the kid on the bike, tell me you saw the office building!” When we finally got home, I fell out of the car and kissed the ground.”
“With his Learner’s Permit, we let him drive us to church on Sunday. We figure that way we could get our prayer time in before we get there. Sometimes there are so many miracles, we skip church and go straight to Cracker Barrel.”
“My SECOND was ‘learning’ to drive. We allowed her to drive home from church. She over shot the side street, over compensated, went up into the home owners yard, shot back out across the street in front of a car, across the road on to the opposite shoulder and then back into her lane. Then she had the gual to say, “Stop screaming I can’t drive when you are screaming!” Ironically that is the only time I do scream.”
Reality is that these stories are funny but they represent a bigger phenomenon….Teens are not safe drivers for a variety of reasons and the statistics support it.
Did you know that October 19 through October 25 is National Teen Driver Safety Week?
I know the excitement for teens to drive is strong and many, parents included, see it as a right of passage and a right as something every teen gets to do when they turn 16. It offers pseudo freedom for teens and potential convenience for parents. Unfortunately, that convenience and freedom won’t amount to much if your teen becomes another statistical data point.
Car crashes are the leading cause of deaths among 16-19 year old teens in America (more than drugs, gun or any disease) and 16 year olds are at the HIGHEST risk! Teens put everyone at risk when they get behind the wheel. In fact, two-thirds of people killed in accidents involving teenage drivers are someone other than the teen. Basically, we put inexperienced teens behind one of the deadliest weapons. So I would say we parents, and everyone else on the road, have reason to be apprehensive.
Last year, when my son, and three of his friends were getting their permits, we parents joked that we should put a full page ad in the local papers:
WARNING: All local drivers please be advised that four newly permitted teenage boys will be on the road effective January 1st. DRIVE AT YOUR OWN RISK!!!
Now we said it jokingly but there was some absolute truth to what we were saying and statistics show it to be very valid! According to Farmer’s Insurance (and backed by others), teen drivers are 4 times more likely to get into accidents. AAA sites that 1 in 5 teen drivers will be in a car crash. Here’s why:
- Not Paying Attention or Distracted Driving
- Speed Management
- Space Management
- Lack of Common Sense Issues such as No Seat Belts, Impaired Driving, Overly Aggressive and Reckless Driving
Pretty simply they have never driven so they just plain lack experience. But as parents we can work to combat this. Even before your teenager starts to drive, starting a year or two BEFORE they can get their permit, begin having them pay attention as you drive. Point out things at first such as “Did you noticed how I stopped because the light had turned yellow?”, “You need to be prepared for anything to happen when you drive, just like that driver who cut us off and slammed on brakes in front us? Did you see what I did? Why do you think that is?” Word of advice, if you are telling your son or daughter to not speed or remain calm or don’t roll stops, then you will want to make sure you are doing the same.
Then move on to having them start reading the driver’s manual, talk about possible scenarios – give them some where the best option isn’t obvious. Start going over the car with them and their safety features. Have them research your state’s requirements for getting their permit and then their license making sure they find out age requirements, behind the wheel requirements and restrictions, whether they need insurance with a permit or only once they get their provisional license, what are the restrictions with a provisional license. If they want the responsibility and freedom of driving, then I firmly believe they need to take some responsibility in finding what it takes to have one. (And I would suggest you look these up as well so that you can verify they “know” everything they should.)
Let’s face it, being able to avoid hairy situations like accidents comes with experience. Only so much can be learned in a classroom and real world experience is the only way to get it. Having as much driving time with you in the car is CRITICAL. Start in isolated areas such as empty parking lots, low traveled back roads and non peak times. Focus on local driving for a while before moving on to more complex situations such as heavy traffic, rain, nighttime driving, snow, interstates, and so on. Once they get their license, restrict alone driving to local areas and progressively increase their range as their alone experience increases. And definitely couple this with your continued supervised driving. My rule of thumb – until you have about a week of driving where you, the parent, aren’t having to remind, correct, or have an unreasonable need for a death grip on the “Oh S**T” bar, they are not ready to be fully on their own.
Most importantly know your teen. Just because 16 is generally the magic number for getting one’s license, doesn’t mean that EVERY teen is ready. Even our insurance man stated that he didn’t get his license until he was 17 and neither did his daughter. Is your teen responsible and mature not only with respect to driving but to other areas of their life? This indicator they are ready or not to drive.
Not Paying Attention or Distracted Driving
Distracted driving, such as using cellphones and texting, is dangerous everywhere and illegal in California and other states for teens (even hands free). Distracted driving for anyone increases their risk of accidents but this is especially true for teens as they lack experience to make critical and split second decisions that can come with driving. But its not just cellphones. Eating, drinking a beverage, fixing one’s hair and even changing the air or radio are big distractions for teens. Even a bad day or being angry can put them at increased risks because their minds are not on driving, which like any new task requires full focus. All of these impair judgment and decision making ability. That brings me to another and major life threatening distraction.
Extra teen passengers provide increased distractions, encourages showing off, somehow mystically decreases their ability to make smart, safe decisions, and can sometimes just plan prevent teen drivers from “seeing” properly. Though reports vary slightly, teen drivers increase their risk of being in an accident by 100% per additional teenage passenger with the most risk at 3 or more passengers. I’m no math expert but if 1 in 5 are going to get in an accident, which is already 20% risk, and each teenage passenger increases that risk by 100%, then if he or his friend with him as a passenger has 3 or more teen passengers, my teen has an 80% chance of getting in an accident! That’s staggering odds to me. And I wasn’t the only one that thought so.
As a result of the dangers involved with teenage drivers, 48 of our 50 states and the District of Columbia have implemented some type of graduated licensing which contain restrictions for teen driving. Many of these include provisions on limitations regarding teen passengers. Here in California, teens with provisional licenses are restricted for one year. I, for one, am a HUGE supporter of this. It just makes sense to me. Why when my teen is just truly gaining experience driving would I want to impede his already limited driving ability by adding other teens. Besides 20% is a big enough risk when it comes to my son’s life. I really don’t want to have to worry that there is an 80% chance he won’t come home safe – whether he is driving or another teen is driving.
You may question graduated licensing terms but since their implementation they have reduced teen at fault driving accidents by over 25% and therefore fatalities as well.
Due to lack of experience, teens have a difficult time with determining appropriate speeds for road conditions. This can be weather conditions, traffic conditions, lighting conditions or just plain wanting to go faster conditions. I don’t know a teen or even an adult who doesn’t like to speed every now and then. However, for teens aged 15-20, speed related crashes account for 44% of fatalities.
Teens generally lack the ability to judge distances, timing, and other space related elements when trying to perform maneuvers – passing, turning, backing up, driving next to cars. My son gravitates to the right when driving in order to stay away from cars driving in the other lane. That might not be so bad but sometimes there are cars – parked or not – to his right. However, when combined with other elements listed above, this can spell accident for teenage drivers.
Lack of Common Sense Issues such as No Seat Belts, Impaired Driving, Overly Aggressive and Reckless Driving
I was shocked to read in several sources that approximately 24% of teens don’t wear seat belts. They are actually at the highest rate of drivers to forget or choose to not wear them when others – peers – are in the car. You may chalk this up to the hubris of teens but regardless of why, its just not safe. Period.
Impaired driving has its risks for everyone, regardless of age but for teens, being impaired (alcohol or other substance) increases their likelihood to make unsafe decisions drastically. Forget for the moment that underage drinking is illegal and that some states, like California, have a ZERO TOLERANCE policy for impaired drivers. (The legal limit for teens is 0 and anything higher and they will lose their license.) Driving under the influence is a factor in 25% of all fatal accidents and is linked to a 74% chance they won’t buckle up. And, they are less likely to call us than their legal 22 year old counter part. Odds are they are making another poor but high risk decision. Help mitigate this chance and consider creating a Contract for Life that allows teens to safely and confidently call for a ride from you if or when they are impaired or their driver is. Deal with consequences another time, just get them home safe.
I’m sure all of us can remember a time when we saw some young driver whip in and out of traffic, hit speeds beyond reasonably safe limits, or tailgate. If we were honest with ourselves, we would even admit that we have perhaps done these behaviors ourselves. Reckless behavior is deliberate and can include ignoring traffic signals or signs such as running reds or racing yellows, changing lanes or turning without looking, and those listed above. These habits are not exclusive to teens but they are found predominately in teens. While teens are fully capable of learning right from wrong when it comes to driving, they do tend to fall to the influence of peers and the novelty of driving. However, their inability to make good judgment calls may not be completely in their control – and NO this is not an excuse. It just means our work as parents is compacted by biology.
Their Brain Development
I had a psychologist, specializing in teens, confirm that scientifically speaking it has been shown that teens do lose brain cells. As she put it, “they do get dumber.” Apparently during adolescence, teens lose brain cells. (Okay that explains why my Advanced Placement son couldn’t transfer that if you have a chapter test, you should probably have the book and read the chapter.) That’s not the only thing going against them when it comes to driving. According to NBC News, the National Institutes of Health study confirmed what we parents of teens have suspected for a long time: teenagers lack good judgment. Okay, every parent go, “Duh!”
According to their study, the teen brain may not be developmentally capable of making critical driving decisions. Basically, the teen brain is not fully developed, particularly in the areas that regulate risk taking and impulse control. Both decision making elements are crucial to safe and smart driving. Ironically, the brain is not fully mature until around the age of 20, approximately four years after most teens are eligible to drive in the United States.
Given that the legal age of driving for most states is 16, a tradition that dates back to early in our automotive history, and how strongly many parents feel about the “Right and Right of Passage” associated with driving at that age, odds are the legal minimum age limit for driving will not be increased anytime soon. That leaves it up to parents to be smart and diligent about how we handle our new teen drivers.
1. As parents, say prayers, drink chamomile tea, meditate, whatever it takes to be relaxed and calm – sorry no shots, you can’t be impaired as much as you wish you were – because your teen WILL make stupid mistakes and plenty of them.
Keep this mantra in mind – patience, patience, patience, patience,…I know its tough, especially if you are like me. I tried patience and it just took too long. Seriously, patience is a must – first, they are a teen, enough said, but they are learning something new. Becoming a safe driver doesn’t happen over night – it takes time, training and experience.
2. Consider having you and your teen go over, commit to and sign both a Parent-Teen Driving Agreement (the one below is from AAA for California but you can modify it to fit your state) AND a Teen-Parent Commitment regarding Under Age Drinking or sometimes called a Contract for Life. The one below is from SADD. This is no way condoning underage drinking but kids make stupid mistakes and I would rather mine call me to get him home rather than make another more life threatening stupid mistake.
3. Set rules and set them early. My cousin made it clear early on to her young drivers that she expected the rules to be followed. She shared how on one occasion when she was attempting to correct her daughter’s driving how her daughter in typical teen attitude said, “I know.” (Because we all know that teenagers know everything and there can’t possibly be something we could teach them from our vast years of experience.) She looked at her daughter, told her to pull over right now. She took over the driving and stated firmly, “If you don’t listen to me then you don’t get to drive because if you aren’t listening to me now, you won’t be listening to me when you drive alone.”
Rules should be clear and in writing. Consider adding to the ones included in the Parent-Teen Driving Agreement below. Make sure you include what their consequences will be if they break the rules. Boundaries, especially when it comes to drive, are a good thing.
Rules you may want to keep in mind and consider are:
Gently accelerate does not mean slam your foot on the gas and gun it nor does stopping involve giving your passengers whiplash.
An automatic “you will never drive again” takes place if this car has any less than four wheels on the ground – especially if I’m in it.
Racing engine or not, you are not Mario Andretti, in other words, slow the HE** down.
I really don’t care if the cutest girl (or the hottest hunk) in school walks by and your tongue touches the floor boards or your eyes are about to come out of their sockets, keep your eyes on the road or all your crush might see is this insane mom screaming and flapping every loose limb at you. You would never have to worry about dating that one.
4. Make sure consequences – not just your rule consequences – are known and clearly understood. For example, my son will be paying for his car insurance and car. Teenage insurance is expensive period but add an at-fault accident, speeding ticket, etc. and rates can sky rocket. Making sure he is very clear on if he does anything to make the rates go up, then he has to pay the difference is important. He’s a bit tight with his money so this is actually a pretty good learning motivator. Share statistics with kids on teen driving, what impacts it, what it can mean to be in an accident – not just losing their driving privileges but their life, someone else’s or being severely permanently injured.
One story I recently found was about a boy reflected back on an accident he had. He had thankfully been okay but his passenger had not. He had killed his best friend by reckless driving. His most moving statement was that he had to live every day knowing that his friend wasn’t because of him. I would never want my child to carry that. Stories like these and continual discussion on driving safe such as driving distracted, following the laws even if you don’t agree with them (even if you the parent don’t), combined with increased experience will help limit their chances of experiencing the more devastating consequences.
5. It’s okay to let go. Hire a pro to teach them. Driver’s Ed classroom and behind the wheel is smart for many reasons but for some states its required. First, its not your car. Think about it, they will be driving an insured car with a professional instructor that if harmed is not YOUR car. Second, Driver’s Ed vehicle come with the REAL passenger side brake. If your teen is doing something wrong, the instructor still has some control. You, on the other hand, in your sport utility vehicle, DON’T. I’m still seeing about getting one installed in my car. Hopefully it will cover the worn spots where my feet dug into the floorboard carpet…maybe they can do something about the “Oh S**T” bar indentations at the same time.
Even after they get their permit and have completed Driver’s Ed, consider a teen driving program on defensive driving. Allstate offers one and once completed can give you a huge discount on insurance. I’m pretty sure AAA has a similar program. Check with your insurance. You might get a discount on top of a potentially safe teen driver.
6. As hard as it may be, share the driving with them. Practice doesn’t make perfect but it does help….drastically.
7. Have a Personal Liability Policy that covers your teen as well. Dependent on the coverage you get your teenage driver, it may not be enough to cover all the expenses that come with an accident. Hey, and I live in the sue happiest state in the US. If your teen injures someone or some property that is not fully covered by your car insurance, a personal liability policy can cover the overages in case you are sued.
8. Make sure your teen is driving a vehicle with safety features in addition to driving safely. As my Allstate agent said about his own daughter (in knowing the statistics), “its not a question of if, its a question of when she will be in an accident.” Balance the trade off between cost and safety.
9. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other parents, friends, and other resources such as those provided by your insurance, school resource, etc. Teen driving is a big deal from a lot of points. It only makes sense that we parents might not know it all. Lean on experts and those you trust.
10. Don’t be afraid to share about mistakes you have made in driving. You were once a teen. We have all made mistakes we wished we had not. Sharing with your teen lets them know you are human and were once where they are.
Have any teen driving stories of your own? I would love to hear them. Be sure to post a comment with your story.