Helping Teen Drivers Take The Wheel And Minimize Risks
Learning to drive is a rite of passage for many teens. Families can benefit when teens get their drivers licenses — parents get a break from chauffeur duties, and driving can offer adolescents more independence and new access to extracurricular activities, part-time jobs and time with friends.
But with these opportunities comes great responsibility and higher risk of accidents for teens. In fact, the leading cause of death for teens 16 to 19 years old is automobile accidents. Moreover, nearly one in five teens will have an accident within their first year of driving. Consequently, it is critical for parents and teens to understand these dangers and what can be done to reduce them.
Why is teen driving so risky?
Young drivers are immature and inexperienced, often overestimating their abilities and underestimating driving hazards. For example, new teen drivers are more likely to speed and not allow enough time to stop — especially on slippery roadways or bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Teen drivers have the lowest rate of seat belt use among all drivers. It is well known that seat belts save lives but data from 2014 indicate that over half of teens involved in fatal automobile crashes were not wearing their seatbelts.
Drivers 16 to 19 years old are the most likely age group to talk and text on their cell phones while driving — and they are more than 20 times more likely to be involved in collisions if they are texting. Overall, texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than driving drunk.
Adolescent drivers are easily distracted by other passengers, especially friends. Just one non-family passenger increases the rate of accidents by 44 percent. The risk doubles with a second passenger and quadruples when teens have three or more friends in the car.
Teens who drink and drive are at a much higher risk of accidents than adults. About one-quarter of teen drivers killed in crashes had been drinking alcohol. While young drivers are less likely than adults to drive after drinking alcohol, their likelihood of having a crash is substantially higher when they do.
Compared to other drivers, teens drive more at night, when the chances of fatal accidents are higher. Lack of driving experience, in tandem with visibility challenges and slower response time due to fatigue, makes night driving more perilous for teens.
Teens are often sleep deprived, which increases the risk of having an accident. Teens need significantly more sleep than adults. While teens require on average nine hours of sleep per night, most receive an average of 7.4 hours. Moreover, compared to adults, teens are more likely to underestimate how tired they actually are.
What can parents do?
Parents should ensure teens get plenty of supervised on-the-road driving time. Most graduated licensing programs require at least 50 hours of experience, but in general, the more the better. Supervised experience in a variety of situations is one of the most effective tools for helping teens become good drivers.
Asking teens questions about how they might respond to unexpected and problematic driving situations and then helping them think through what they might do is a good preventative strategy. This might include talking with teens about what to do if they have a crash, get pulled over by police, or encounter a difficult driving situation that they don't think they can handle.
Parents should try to foster a supportive environment in which teens feel comfortable talking about driving concerns. This should include letting teens know that they always have the option of choosing not to drive in challenging situations where they do not feel safe or prepared. Teens are most likely to contact parents when they have collisions and be honest about their driving-related concerns when they don't fear punishment or their parents getting upset.
Parents should reinforce rules and consequences associated with risky driving practices. For example, teens should wear seatbelts. They should not text, check for messages or talk on their phones while driving. Establishing a contract between parents and teen drivers can be a good strategy. AAA has a sample agreement that parents and young drivers can sign that lays out the consequences in advance.
If a family has multiple vehicles, children should drive the safest and largest option. Although teens often drive older models because they are not worth as much and parents are less concerned about potential damage, newer cars are more likely to be safer because they are equipped with the latest safety features.
Clear rules, supervised driving experience and monitored driving behavior are the best approach to help teens develop into safe, capable and responsible drivers.
Stephen Small is human development and family relations specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension and a professor of human development and family studies at UW-Madison. This article is adapted from an item published by Parenthetical, a UW-Extension publication for parents of teens.