An Anxious Parent’s Guide to Teen Driver Safety

Car crashes are the number one killer of teens in the U.S.

For decades, parents have been warned about the risks facing our nation’s teens.

While once it was the ‘dangers’ of rock music, today’s warnings are often about substance misuse and dangerous viral challenges. And though these can pose serious risks, the number one killer of teens is sitting in your driveway.

According to Injury Facts, more than 2,400 teens were killed in car crashes in 2016, the third year in a row this number increased. These numbers should worry all parents. I have two sons who are driving — one with a full license and the other with a permit — and the dangers they face behind the wheel terrify me.

Yet, tragically, despite being the most dangerous activity most of us do on a daily basis, driving has become so routine that we hardly notice the risks. We view our teens getting behind the wheel as a milestone, not as something that could seriously injure or even kill them.

This is where parents come in. Parents are often the ones who ride alongside teens as they learn to drive and they are the ones most in a position to help, as long as they stay involved.

Your teen needs you

It’s not that our teens are irresponsible or aren’t careful behind the wheel, it’s that they’re inexperienced. Teens haven’t had the time to learn how to handle risky or confusing driving situations so they haven’t developed the skills they need to anticipate the actions of other drivers or respond to poor road conditions. Practicing is the only way for them to gain the experience and knowledge they need, and they need you by their side as they learn.

Though it can be tempting to allow the driver’s ed instructor to handle the classroom and behind-the-wheel training and think you can simply supervise while your teen racks up practice hours, this is not a part of raising your child that you should delegate to someone else. Parents are the number one influence on their teen’s driving habits, not friends, teachers or anyone else. This means you need to regularly ride with your teen — even after they get a license — and set a good example for your teen to follow. If you text behind the wheel, your teen will do the same. If you make calls, eat or do other distracting behaviors, expect your teen to mimic your behavior. But if you treat driving as the risky act that it is, your teen will also think of it this way. As you coach your teen on the path towards getting a license, do not underestimate the impact you can have on them.

State requirements aren’t enough

Before your teen gets a license, they must meet certain requirements set by the state. These graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws are designed to limit some of the biggest risks as your teen gains important experience on the road. Depending on the state, they may set restrictions around how many passengers can be in the car, how many hours of supervised driving your teen needs and other factors.

Many parents treat these requirements as targets to hit, but the reality is that none of them go far enough. Consider that several states require no supervised driving hours for teens, while others have no limits on passengers. In most states, your teen can go from having no driving experience to taking their test and getting a license in only six months.

In my home state of Illinois, new drivers must hold their permit license for 9 months, but our first son had his for nearly a year as he accrued hours on the road in different conditions. Why? Because once your teen gets a license, they’re not a different driver than they were two weeks ago when they may have scared you behind the wheel. Their inexperience is addressed by hours behind the wheel, with you coaching them through new experiences; you cannot rely on weak state laws to solve for individual skills.

Your state may not have the strictest provisions, but you can set your own. A good first step is to learn the toughest state GDL laws and aim to surpass them. In Illinois, just matching our GDL laws to the strictest ones nationwide would mean a 42% reduction in fatal teen crashes, according to IIHS. Setting these additional rules is not about limiting your child’s freedom, it’s about keeping them safe. We know that teen drivers are the most at-risk group on our roads, so we have to do more to protect them.

Stick to the rules you set

It’s been years since we saw a major, positive change to teen driver trends, but small changes can make a difference for your teen. It’s best to be open and honest about why you are setting these rules and the expectations you have for your teen driver. If you’re unsure where to start, DriveitHOME ­– an initiative of the National Safety Council — offers free resources like a parent-teen driving agreement to get you both on the same page and a year’s worth of lessons you can use to help your teen build up their driving skills.

Most of all, you have to be ready to stick to these rules, even when they’re inconvenient. Too often, we embrace our teen drivers as chauffeurs who can share the family driving responsibilities. We look forward to having our teen drop off their younger siblings at school or pick them up from practice. But passengers — especially siblings and other teens — can be enormously distracting and dangerous for a new driver.

I was terrified at the idea of having my oldest son drive his siblings around because I knew the risks my generally safe and responsible teen faced as a novice driver and couldn’t bear the thought of losing all of my kids at once. As parents, we have to make the tough decisions that will protect our children and the other people on the road. Fortunately, the more we understand these risks, the easier it is to stick to our rules and decisions.

Stay involved

Of course, the more we learn about these kinds of dangers, the harder it is to let our kids face them. That’s why it’s okay to feel anxious or even unsure about your teen getting behind the wheel. But it’s not okay to be absent or uninvolved at this crucial time in their development.

We were all teenagers once and, for most of us, learning to drive was a time of excitement and possibility. We can’t expect our teens to fully understand the dangers of driving, but we can help protect them. Be the coach your teen needs and make sure they always make it back home safe.