Parenting teenagers has never been more challenging. In addition to raising your teen to become a good person and a responsible adult, parents today need to help their teens navigate a variety of risks including drinking and drugs, social media, and the complexities inherent in friendships and romantic relationships. With all of these factors to worry about, it can be easy to forget that the biggest risk facing your teen is parked right outside of your house. Incredibly, traffic crashes are the number one cause of death for teenagers in America. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motor vehicle accidents are the cause of 35% of teen deaths every year, and mile for mile, teens are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as all other drivers.
There are a number of factors that contribute to teen driving fatalities:
- Inexperience and immaturity
- Excessive speed
- Drinking and driving
- Not wearing seat belts
- Distracted driving (cell phone use, loud music, other teen passengers, etc.)
- Drowsy driving
- Nighttime driving
- Drug use
Parent Involvement Is Critical
The good news is that many teen driving accidents are preventable, and parents have a key role to play in keeping their teens safe behind the wheel. A recent National Young Driver Survey found that teens with authoritative parents (defined as those who are highly supportive and involved, set rules, and monitor) engaged in fewer risky driving behaviors and had half the crash risk as compared to other teens. In addition teens with involved parents are:
- Twice as likely to wear seat belts
- 70% less likely to drink and drive
- Half as likely to speed
- 30% less likely to use a cell phone while driving
The takeaway? Make sure you are talking with your teen and setting expectations for their driving.
How You Can Help
There are a number of specific things parents can do to reduce the chances that their teens will be involved in auto accidents:
- Set Clear Rules: Make sure to let your teen know what your expectations are and explain the rationale behind them.
- Focus on Safety: Let them know that you are setting these rules to keep them safe and not simply to control them.
- Reward Good Behavior: If your teen follows your rules and maintains a good driving record, introduce new privileges (such as driving after dark).
- Be Supportive: Peer pressure is tough, and your teen may find themself getting pressured to engage in behavior that violates your rules. As a parent, you can make things easier by letting your teen’s friends know what the rules are and then acting as a scapegoat (“I can’t do that, my parents would ground me!”), or by establishing a code word with your teen (if they call and mention the word, come and pick them up right away and with no questions asked).
- Communicate: Communication is critical. Talk to your teen and make sure you know where they are going and why, how they plan to get there, and how they will get home. If you (or they) don’t feel confident that they have a plan in place to get safely there and back, offer a ride.
- Lead by Example: Even though teens might not admit it, parents really are important role models. Make sure that you practice safe driving. Don’t talk on your cell phone or text while driving, obey the speed limit, don’t drive if you’ve been drinking, and don’t drive aggressively.
One of the best ways to clearly establish and communicate expectations is through the use of a Parent-Teen Driving Agreement. Use this template provided by the Centers for Disease Control or create your own. Either way, make sure your expectations are set out in writing, and then both you and your teen should sign the agreement. Having a clear set of expectations and communicating often about them are the best ways to keep your teen safe on the road.