Teen Driver? What to Know Before They Go
The summer months are the deadliest for teens in cars. No school means more unstructured time for young drivers and their friends to roam the roads.
By Ashley Antle
One day your baby is securely nestled into their rear-facing car seat with a five-point harness. The next, they’re 16 and climbing into the driver’s seat eager to conquer the open road. For parents, it’s a moment of both pride and sheer terror.
Will they drive carefully and obey traffic laws? Will they pay attention? Will they know how to react when seconds count? Will they make it home safely?
Parents have a good reason for concern. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that 2,042 people were killed in crashes involving teen drivers in 2019. In March, six high school girls, one of them the driver, lost their lives in a tragic car accident that made national news. The investigation into the cause of the accident is ongoing.
The summer months are the deadliest for teens in cars. No school means more unstructured time for young drivers and their friends to roam the roads. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety labeled the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day the “100 deadliest days” because there are more daily deaths during this time due to accidents involving teen drivers than at any other time of the year.
Sharon Evans is the trauma injury prevention coordinator at Cook Children’s Medical Center where she spends her days educating patients and staff about how to stay safe. She is also a National Child Passenger Safety (CPS) Certification instructor and was the first in Texas certified to instruct the CPS course for special needs children called Safe Travel for All Children. Evans knows what it takes to keep kids safe in the car.
It’s not uncommon for teenagers to think they know everything. In reality, their brains are not fully developed. They lack the judgment skills that come with age and maturity, like the ability to assess risk. It’s why teens are prone to risky behavior in general.
“Teen brains aren't developed to the point where they can look at the situation and predict what's going to happen, good or bad,” Evans said. “They need time to grow to that before they can handle distractions like having more people in the car, or have the reaction time they need to drive I-635.”
Teens are also easily distracted and easily influenced. A young driver is more likely to mirror the behavior of their teen passengers, even if it takes their focus off the road. According to NHTSA, the more teenagers in a car with a teen driver, the higher the risk of a fatal crash. In Texas, new drivers under 18 aren’t allowed to have more than one non-familial passenger younger than 21 in the vehicle.
Even without multiple passengers, distractions are aplenty. Texting and talking on the phone, eating a drive-thru breakfast, or applying makeup while in a school rush — all have the potential to lead to a deadly disaster, even for the most experienced driver.
Giving new drivers the time to gain experience and maturity is the point behind the graduated driver licensing system. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of this three-stage licensing system for new drivers to minimize high-risk situations, such as driving at night or with multiple unrelated passengers.
But Evans says teen driver training starts long before a child turns 15 and enters the permitted driving stage.
“I truly believe setting safety expectations and good driving habits starts way back when they're a year old,” Evans said. “Kids are watching their parents. So when they see the parents on the phone while driving, you’ve basically just told them through your actions that it's OK.”
The same goes for seat belt wearing. Properly wearing their seat belt was never a choice for Evans’ kids. It was a given that turned into a habit and, eventually, an automatic reflex — one that paid off when her teens became drivers.
“I felt much better the first time one of my 16-year-olds drove away knowing that they were in the habit of always wearing their seat belt,” Evans said. “I at least felt they would always have it on because that was the norm for them.”’
Evans suggests a few other steps to prepare your teen driver to take the wheel:
- Have the hard conversations. Talk about the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol and the potential aftermath of being distracted by the phone. Be open and honest about what can happen.
- Walk through the “what ifs.” What do you do when you have a flat tire? If your car breaks down on the side of the road should you get out or stay in the vehicle until help arrives?
- “Preparing for all of those little ‘hope they don’t happen’ things, really makes a difference,” Evans said.
- Be clear about the rules. No alcohol. No speeding. No texting while driving. Where can they go and when? What highways and byways are off-limits? Who can be in the car when they are driving? Who can and can’t they ride with? You know your child best. If they’ve fulfilled state licensing requirements but you know they’re not ready to be let loose of certain restrictions, slow their roll.
- Practice. Practice. Practice. It takes nerves of steel to be a parent in the passenger seat while your kid is behind the wheel, but that permitted driving stage is essential. Novice drivers need to encounter different driving situations and gain experience responding to them while under the watchful eye of a skilled driver.
- “It can be unnerving, but drive with them,” Evans said. “Let them get lots of experience during that permit time so they can encounter different situations while you are there to help and instruct. Drive with them as much as possible before they’re truly out on their own.”