Teens and Driving

December 2016

How parents can help teens be better drivers

Contact Stephen Small, myparenthetical@gmail.com, 608-263-5688

Learning to drive is a rite of passage for most teens. For many families, it benefits both teens and their parents when a teen gets their license. Driving can offer adolescents more independence and gives parent a break from chauffeuring duties.

But along with the new driver’s license comes greater responsibility and risk, says Stephen Small, human development and family relations specialist with UW-Extension and professor in the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology. Small identifies some reasons why new teen drivers are at higher risk for accidents.

Why is teen driving risky?

—Young drivers are immature and inexperienced, often overestimating their abilities and underestimating driving hazards. For example, teens are more likely to speed and not allow enough time to stop—especially on slippery roadways or in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

—Teen drivers have the lowest rate of seatbelt use among all drivers. It’s well known that seatbelts save lives, but statistics show that 56 percent of all teens involved in fatal crashes were not wearing seatbelts.

—New drivers are more easily distracted by passengers, friends or mobile devices than more experienced drivers.

—When teens drink and drive, they have a much higher risk of accidents than adults. Almost one-third of teen drivers killed in crashes had been drinking. This is especially the case at low and moderate blood alcohol concentrations and is thought to result from teens’ combined inexperience with both drinking and driving.

—Teens drive more at night, when the chances of a fatal accident go up due to less visibility.

—Teens are often sleep deprived. Adolescents need significantly more sleep than adults. They should get an average of nine hours of sleep each night, but most teens average around 7.4 hours. And compared to adults, teens are more likely to underestimate how tired they actually are.

What parents can do

Small suggests teens get plenty of supervised on-the-road driving time. “Supervised experience is one of the most effective tools to help your teen become a good driver,” he says. “Be sure to include opportunities to drive in a wide range of situations, like different weather conditions, at night and at high-traffic times.”driving

Small says asking your teen questions about how they would handle unexpected or problematic driving situations, and then sharing your own experience, is helpful. “Talk about what to do if your child makes a driving mistake or gets involved in an accident,” he says.

Small has other tips for parents.

—Create a supportive environment where teens feel comfortable talking about their driving concerns. Let them know it’s OK not to drive in challenging situations when they don’t feel safe or prepared. Teens will be more likely to be honest with their parents when they don’t fear punishment or their parents getting upset. It is critical that parents know about an accident and use the moment as a teaching opportunity.

—Continue to reinforce rules and consequences associated with risky driving practices. For example, teens need to wear seatbelts, and avoid texting, checking messages or talking on their cell phones when driving. Small suggests a contract between parents and teen drivers. A sample contract is available from AAA.

—Let your child drive the safest and largest car in the family. Newer cars are equipped with the latest safety features, but teens often drive older models because they are cheaper and parents are less concerned about scratches or damages.

Small says that having clear rules, providing opportunities for supervised driving experience and monitoring driving behavior is the best insurance that teens will be develop into safe, capable and responsible drivers.