Reckless driving and adolescence need not go hand in hand. Here's how to ramp up the safety factor
If you're a parent with a new driver, these facts will keep you up at night: Traffic crashes rank as the No. 1 killer of American teenagers. Teen drivers have the highest collision rate of any age group, and teens who have driven a year or less have the worst crash rates by far.
Behind the wheel, teens endanger not only themselves, but also everyone else on the road. In fact, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that pedestrians, passengers, and occupants of other cars account for nearly two out of three fatalities in teen crashes.
You can do more than simply lose sleep. Although you can never absolutely, positively crash-proof a new driver, the following 10 steps will reduce the risks in a big way.
1. Size up your teen's maturity. In assessing your teen's readiness to drive, the ability to make good decisions counts more than age. But measuring maturity can prove tricky. Certainly, academic performance can serve as a surrogate yardstick. Does your teen get good grades, complete assignments on time and generally take responsibility for schoolwork, without your nagging? If not, you might want to reconsider handing over the car keys.
For some teens, socialization serves as an even better indicator than schoolwork, notes Dr. William Van Tassel, AAA's director of driver training operations. "How do teens interact with parents, siblings and other family members?" he asks. "Do they respect other people? Do they think things through before they act? Are they impulsive?" Maybe you think such social skills bear no relation to the psycho-motor skills required behind the wheel. But driving is basically a social activity. You need to know the rules, respect others' rights and keep your temper to stay out of trouble on the road as well as in life.
Not all teenagers get a license as soon they become legally eligible, and those who don't usually get along just fine. Some pass up driving out of choice. "I think I had more fun by not driving," says Camille Garrenton, a 20-year-old Ohioan who didn't get her license until she entered college. "I never really partied hearty in high school. And I got to know a lot of the older kids better, because they gave me rides to soccer practice and other places."
Others don't drive by their parents' choice. "My dad didn't think I was mature enough to drive," says Hannah Glatz, who grew up in Elgin, Ill., smack in car-crazy suburbia. "I, of course, thought I was. But I'm the youngest of four kids, and I think he just wanted to postpone the "final freedom" for me, the last one. My friends teased me about it at first, but after a while it was no big deal." Now a college junior in Chicago, Glatz still doesn't have her license - and is in no hurry to get it. "Sure, I want to drive someday," she admits. "It's just not high on my list of priorities right now."
2. Drive the way you expect your kid to drive. Here's a discomforting truth: Bad drivers beget bad drivers. According to a recent study sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, teens involved in crashes are much more likely than crash-free teens to have parents with bad driving records, as measured by the number of tickets and collisions. This suggests that the teens' driving behavior is a reflection of the parents' driving behavior, conclude researchers. The correlation holds regardless of parents' educational level or socio-economic status.
Like it or not, you become a behind-the-wheel role model for your teen long before he or she reaches driving age. Did your child grow up seeing you ignore speed limits, yak on the cell phone or gesture rudely to other drivers? Then why be surprised if your kid does the same as a teen?
3. Practice, practice, practice. Your teen needs you even more after getting a learner's permit and starting driver education. "Parents must stay involved," says Larry Lonero, principal of Northport Associates, a consulting firm specializing in safety training and research. "Regardless of how good the instructor is, parents must take an active role. The more involved you are, the lower the risk will be."
"Essentially, the parent should become the teen's practice coach," says Dr. Frederik R. Mottola, executive director of the National Institute for Driver Behavior. That means scheduling regular over-the-road sessions, knowing the specific skills and techniques covered in the curriculum, reinforcing them during practice, correcting mistakes calmly and providing plenty of praise when your teen does well.
4. Just say no to peer passengers and night driving. Statistics overwhelmingly identify the two biggest risk factors for teens as driving at night and having other teens as passengers. The more passengers, the higher the risk. Such stats have prompted states to pass graduated driver licensing laws that phase in night driving and number of passengers, among other things. AAA clubs across the nation have been instrumental in getting these GDL laws passed, and a AAA Foundation-sponsored study shows that such legal restrictions really do reduce new-driver crash rates. But you can do even better. "Parents always have control," notes AAA's Van Tassel. "You can set limits tougher than state laws." Setting stricter curfews and prohibiting all non-family teen passengers for the first few months of driving are ways to give your teen the chance to log valuable solo time in lower-risk conditions.
5. Limit other distractions. Cell phones, CDs, iPods, fast food, mascara- the list of potentially dangerous behind-the-wheel distractions goes on and on. Of course, you can't monitor your teen's behavior every minute in the car. But you can model safe behavior by avoiding such distractions yourself. And insist that your teen not eat, use a phone, root around for CDs or scroll through iPod playlists while the vehicle is moving.
6. Set clear consequences and stick to them. Just as traffic-law violations earn tickets and other penalties, violations of family driving rules should bring consequences, too. Depending on the offense, they might run from doing extra chores around the house to reducing the number of driving hours per week, to further restricting the number of passengers, to losing driving privileges for a specified period of time.
Good behavior should have consequences, too. Experts emphasize that positive feedback - especially rewards for good behavior - reinforce the learning process for new drivers.
7. Put everything in writing. Once you and your teen agree upon the conditions and restrictions for driving privileges - as well as the consequences for violating them - spell them out on paper, just to make everything clear. Of course, your teen must agree to wear his or her seat belt, observe speed limits, say no to alcohol and drugs and obey other laws. But the agreement should also spell out your teen's responsibilities to maintain the vehicle and pay for driving expenses. How much should he or she contribute to gas, regular upkeep and insurance? You can decide, based on your own financial circumstances.
Putting everything in writing does more than make the conditions clear. It also hammers home the point that driving is serious business, not something you or your teen should take lightly. (AAA offers a brochure, Driving Contracts, that offers specific guidance and sample provisions for a parent-teen agreement.)
8. Schedule Sunday summits. According to the AAA Foundation study, parental communication ranks as one of the most important traits separating crash-free teens from crash-prone ones. Simply put, better parent-teen communication leads to better driving.
How can you tackle a problem that has plagued parents for generations? For starters, AAA's Van Tassel suggests holding regular "Sunday summits." Gather round the kitchen table every few weeks to review your teen's driving performance, as well as the conditions and restrictions you've set. "If there have been no violations after 90 days, then maybe you can agree to let your teen have the car an hour later on weekends or some other reward," suggests Van Tassel. "A summit is an easy-to-use trigger system to mete out rewards and implement consequences, as well as a time when you talk about nothing but driving."
9. Get high-tech help. Although you can't ride everywhere with your teen to monitor his or her driving habits, you can do the next best thing. Several companies offer event data recorders - so-called "black boxes" that keep track of maximum speed, acceleration rates, instances of hard braking and other parameters that indicate aggressive driving. Some EDRs even sound alarms when the vehicle exceeds certain pre-set limits. They cost as little as $200 plus installation.
Understandably, many teens might balk at what they consider electronic eavesdropping. Whatever you do, don't install an EDR surreptitiously. Secrecy only defeats the EDR's real purpose - discouraging risky behavior. For example, you want your teen to think twice about speeding, knowing the EDR will catch the incident even if the police don't. But you must commit to faithfully downloading EDR readouts and reviewing them together in your Sunday summits. Better yet, use an EDR to monitor your own driving behavior and share the results with your teen. That way, everyone will view the black box as a family safety check, not just a tool to snoop on kids.
10. Let your teen use the safest car. Often the family's oldest car becomes the hand-me-down teenmobile, even though it may not be the wisest choice. It stands to reason that the least experienced driver should use the safest car.
Size matters in a collision, and large sedans make up in crashworthiness what they lack in cool. The latest safety technology --side airbags, anti-lock brakes and stability control, for example - helps, too, if you have a vehicle so equipped. Absolutely avoid small, high-powered sports cars, convertibles (which have higher injury rates) and SUVs (which tend to roll over). If your best efforts fail and your teen does have a crash, you've done your best to maximize protection.
How AAA Can Help
AAA offers plenty of free or low-cost resources to help you and your teen stay safe behind the wheel. Call or visit the nearest AAA office to pick up the brochures and other items listed below.
Welcoming Your New Driver. A great starting point for parents, covering the responsibilities of new drivers, your role, useful Web sites and more.
Becoming the New Driver in Your Family. The lowdown on what a teen can expect - including the 10 most common new-driver mistakes - in a serious but accessible style.
One Drink Can Be Too Many. A frank, no-nonsense discussion of alcohol and teen drivers.
Choosing a Driving School. A 14-page brochure with detailed guidance and school-by-school evaluation worksheets.
Teaching Your Teens to Drive. A complete parent involvement kit, with a workbook, instructional video, and interactive CD-ROM taking you and your teen through 13 skill-building sessions.
Driver-ZED. Software that turns your PC into a full-screen, full-motion interactive driving simulator, from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. ($24.95; to order, visit www.driverzed.org or call 800/305-SAFE.)
Buying a Vehicle
So Your Teen Wants a Car? A parent's guide for choosing a vehicle, with practical advice and a safety checklist.
Buying a Safer Car. The latest info about vehicles' crashworthiness, rollover resistance, safety equipment, and more, published annually in cooperation with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Driving Contracts. Explains parent-to-parent agreements (so that families can join forces to enforce driving rules) and parent-to-teen agreements, with sample contracts.
http:www.aaa.com/publicaffairs Click on "Teen Drivers" to download fill-in-the-blank parent-teen driving contracts, parent-to-parent agreements, a guide to finding info on DMV Web sites, AAA's guidelines for graduated licensing laws, a state-by-state GDL guide and more.
http:www.roadreadyteens.org Tons of tips for parents and teens, plus Streetwise! (an interactive Web-based video game that teaches safety), co-sponsored by DaimlerChrysler, AAA and others.