By Leslie Davis

You knew the day would come when your teen would be old enough to drive. You just didn’t expect that day to come so soon.

And while you will have very little control over your teen’s driving once the DMV issues her a driver’s license and she hits the open road, you can do a lot to help your teen become a safe (and more responsible) driver.

Importance of Teaching Responsible Driving

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drivers ages 16 to 19 are more at risk for getting into a car accident than are drivers in any other age group. In 2005, teens accounted for 12 percent of the deaths caused by car accidents. Those most at risk for accidents are males, teens driving with teenage passengers and newly licensed drivers.

The CDC website lists several reasons why teens are particularly at risk for car accidents:

  • Teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate dangerous situations or not be able to recognize hazardous situations.
  • Teens are more likely than older drivers to speed and allow shorter headways (the distance from the front of one vehicle to the front of the next). The presence of male teenage passengers increases the likelihood of this risky driving behavior.
  • Compared with other age groups, teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use. In 2005, 10 percent of high school students reported they rarely or never wear seat belts when riding with someone else.
  • At all levels of blood alcohol concentration (BAC), the risk of involvement in a motor vehicle crash is greater for teens than for older drivers.

Of course, drunk driving is also a particular concern among teens, despite the fact that they are not legally old enough to drink. In 2005, 23 percent of drivers ages 15 to 20 who died in car accidents had a BAC higher than the legal limit for any drivers. According to a national survey conducted that same year, nearly three out of 10 teens reported riding in a car with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.

Safe Driving Tips

The following are some things you should discuss with your teen before he gets behind the wheel of a car. While you can’t prevent all accidents, letting your teen know of these risks can greatly reduce the chance that he will be the cause of one:

  • Turn cell phones off. Talking and texting on cell phones while driving is a huge distraction. But teens love their cell phones, and likely believe they are more than capable of multitasking while driving. A 2005 survey by the Allstate Foundation found that more than half of teens use their cell phones while driving. Depending on the state you live in, texting or talking on a cell phone may be illegal. Regardless, let your teens know the dangers of cell phone (and other distracting behaviors) in cars, and instruct them to keep their cell phones off or on vibrate so that they are less tempted to use them. To decrease the risk of your teen being tempted, outfit their car with a hands-free device so they don’t think twice about reaching down to answer their phone.
  • Keep your eyes on the road. This sounds obvious, but most teens believe they can do it all — even if that means taking their eyes of the road to do it. Let them know how distracting (and potentially dangerous) it can be to eat while driving, put on makeup, change the radio stations or look at passengers. Accidents happen in a split second, and inattentive drivers are the cause of 80 percent of crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • Maintain a safe distance. Teens are more likely than other drivers to tailgate. Newer drivers may not quite understand the importance of staying a safe distance away from the car in front of them. When teaching them how to drive, show your teens what represents a safe distance, and have them practice when you are in the car. Once they get a feel for it, it will become second nature while driving.
  • Always wear a seat belt. Many fatalities that result from car accidents are due to drivers and passengers not wearing seat belts. Stress the importance of seat belt use to your teens, whether they are driving or just going along for the ride. “[Teens] don’t understand how much a seat belt is going to save their lives, but seat belt use has been a huge factor in just about every fatal teen accident I’ve handled in my career,” Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Jimmy Higgs said in an Oct. 16 article in the Utah Standard-Examiner.
  • Don’t drink and drive. This one should go without saying, but, given the statistics above, clearly many teens disregard even this blatant law. Inform your teens of the dangers of drunk driving — both the potential risk of fatalities and the legal ramifications of driving while intoxicated. Let them know that, if they feel like they are too drunk to drive, they can call you for a ride without getting in trouble. While you may not approve of your teens’ underage drinking, keep in mind that it’s better to make sure they get home safely than have them be too worried about getting in trouble to call you.

A Good Driving Education

Of course, the best way to teach your teens any of these safe driving tips is to spend a significant amount of time teaching them how to drive. Go beyond the minimum the minimum instructional hours required by your state to ensure that they are following the rules of the road and applying the safe driving tips they’ve been taught.

If you tend to be a distracted driver, don’t let your teens follow suit. Be aware of your own behaviors while you drive so that your teens don’t learn by example.

If you feel uncomfortable teaching your teens to drive, enroll them in a licensed driving school. Specialty driving schools will take teens out on a race track to show them such things as how to turn into a skid and what it’s like to drive while drunk (through the use of altered goggles).

If you think it would help, create a contract for driving that your teens have to abide by to get certain privileges, such as driving at night or having friends in the car. Holding teens accountable for their behaviors can make them more likely to think about safety when they’re behind the wheel.