I have three teenagers. They are obnoxiously eager to grow up. The kind of kids who take their driving test the first morning they legally can.
I’ve taught two of them to drive. It is, hands down, the hardest thing I’ve done as a parent. I’d rather talk to them about genital warts than get into the passenger seat with one of them at the wheel. But I did it.
So it is always especially painful to read about teenagers killed behind the wheel. Last week in a neighborhood near my house, just before midnight on a summer night, a car carrying four teenagers who’d just graduated from a local high school hit a tree. Two died; they were in the back seat, not wearing seatbelts, and alcohol and speed are considered factors in the crash. The two dead boys are exactly the same age as my 18-year-old son, who also just graduated from a local high school, and who drives the same road the kids went off before dying.
The facts from the National Traffic Safety Board are chilling. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers; more young people die in crashes every year than from suicide, drugs, violence, and alcohol combined.
Over one hundred 15-20 year olds die in traffic accidents every week.
One of the biggest risk factors is teenaged passengers; a teen driver with one passenger doubles the risk of being involved in a fatal car crash, and two or more passengers, increases the risk threefold.
More than half of teens (54 percent) report that they use a hand-held cell phone while driving.
Adding to parents’ worries is the fact that summer remains the deadliest time for car accidents, with nearly twice as many automotive deaths occurring during the summer months than the rest of the year combined.
How can parents ever let their children drive, knowing the risks?
My son was the first one I taught. He’s an athlete. Cool head, steady hands. I started him off baby-driving when he was about 13, going 10 mph in our dirt driveway or an empty parking lot at the beach. Piece of cake.
Then at 16, he got his learner’s permit and we hit the streets – the real streets – near our house. Five minutes into our first lesson, he had to pull over. His t-shirt was soaked through. Mine was too. We changed places and I drove home. I said to myself, seriously, that it was not possible for any human being to learn how to drive an automobile ever again.
Six months later, he passed his official driver’s test on the first try. Having spent over 40 hours in the car slowly teaching him to drive, I waited anxiously for him to return from the test, not knowing whether he’d passed or not. As he got out of the car, he saw me looking out the DMV window. He winked.
He’s been driving for two years now. He’s had a few minor fender benders – always the other driver’s fault, he assures me. He’s never driven drunk. He drives five to ten mph too fast, in my opinion, but maybe that’s just Mom.
But what’s most remarkable is how having a license has changed my son. I joke that I’ve barely seen him since the day he passed the test. His driver’s license has allowed him to mature and forced him to grow up in ways that he couldn’t have without the independence that comes with driving.
First, he ran a sneaker resale business for almost a year to earn money to buy his own car. That car has been broken into, pooped on by birds, and hit by other drivers. My son has had to deal with the car wash, the gas station, the insurance company and the repair shop. His sense of importance has grown healthily as he’s given his sisters and friends, and even occasionally his mom, much needed rides. He’s getting ready to drive to college in the fall. If I were still taking him everywhere, maybe he’d be safer, but he’d be a different, less accountable, far less mature young adult.
Teen driving safety has come a long way since we first got our licenses. The automotive safety experts have invaluable data about how to teach teenagers to drive, and the biggest risk factors we need to be sure they avoid. This info below is a good start for any parent with a child approaching driving age.
- Take teaching your child to be a responsible driver slowly. Becoming a good driver takes at least 50 hours of training, and I would argue it truly takes years; most driving experts now recommend the Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) system of teaching teenagers how to drive.
- Hire a driving instructor, and/or pay for your child to take a good driver’s education class, whether your state requires it or not. Your child will learn from a pro, and get the message that driving is serious business – you don’t just turn the key and peel out.
- Educate yourself and your teenagers about the riskiest driving distractions and behaviors, such as teenaged passengers, cell phone use, and alcohol; the most dangerous times (nighttime between 11-3am); and the most lethal periods, including summer, and specific dates such as July 4th , Thanksgiving Eve and of course, New Year’s Eve.
- Pass on your decades of hard-earned driving knowledge; this is one time your kids will actually listen to you. Have a family friend or relative who is a good driver give an occasional lesson and pass on their knowledge too. Different drivers teach your child vital tips that you may overlook or simply forget. Plus, it’s a good way to enforce that driving doesn’t come easily to anyone.
- Create, publicize and enforce your family’s driving rules, such as no drinking or drug use combined with driving; zero texting even at stop lights; following the speed limit; 100% seatbelt usage for driver and passengers, etc. Check your assumptions that your kids know the risks and will avoid them: one percent of parents think their kids text and drive; in reality, more than a quarter of teens (26%) do.
I’ve been teaching my 16-year-old daughter to drive for the past six months. She’s very cautious, which I love. She hates to go faster than 25 mph, which I also love. She’s taking her driver’s test in a few days. I’m hoping she comes out winking too. I can’t wait to see what becoming a legal – and safe — driver does for her.