Research has shown that parents are one of the biggest forces keeping teens safe in cars. The rules parents set up, and how they're enforced, keep teens from getting into dangerous situations.
But too often, parents find themselves in one of two camps: The laissez faire group, who trust driver's ed will do its job and their teen will learn the rules of the road the hard way; and the little dictators, who blow their tops every time their teen makes a mistake behind the wheel and see yelling and screaming as an effective way to keep their teens under control.
[This is the third article in our Teen Driving Safety series. Please read Teen Drivers Making Common and Fatal Mistakes and Think Driving Schools Make Safe Drivers: Think Again.]
You want them to come home and talk
"You have to keep it an emotionally safe conversation, watching the eyeball rolling and tones of voices," says Dr. Charles Sophy, a psychiatrist who specializes in family communication. "You want them to come home and tell you if they are having problems."
Researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) say authoritative parents who set rules, explain why those rules are in the teen's best interest, and then set consequences when rules are broken, are the parents who have the most influence on their child's safety. The hospital hosts a web site called Teen Driver Source, which includes a section on how parents can supervise teen drivers.
The rules that keep them safe reflect graduated drivers license laws around the country: Limit the number of passengers allowed in the car, enforce curfews, encourage seat-belt use and enforce penalties for speeding.
Teens whose parents are actively involved in their day-to-day driving are 70% percent less likely to drink and drive, CHOP said. They are half as likely to speed, and 30% less likely to use a cellphone while behind the wheel.
Delay car ownership
And kids who don't have their own car - those who have to ask their parents permission every time they get behind the wheel – cut their risk of accidents in half.
"You need to be constantly talking about this stuff and reinforcing it," says Pam Fisher, leader of the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition. Fisher is pushing for coaches and other youth leaders to get into the game, asking them to learn the laws and using their influence to make sure teens are adhering to rules that limit what time they can drive and how many passengers they can have in a car. "Everybody, together, needs to be united in helping reinforce this message."
But teens need to hear that the rules are there for their safety, not because adults want to control them.
Dr. Dennis Durbin, a teen safety researcher at CHOP, says that parents can defuse a lot of situations by explaining that the rules are there sort of like a set of training wheels: Once the teen driver gets more skilled, they can progress to having more people in the car, or driving further, or driving later at night.
"Teens will always interpret, 'No you can't,' as saying they can never do it," Durbin said. "When I say, 'I want you to be able to safely drive your friends in the car and get you to a point where you're ready to do that,' it turns the conversation around."
But sometimes it's tough to figure out exactly what to say and when to say it. So here are some guidelines on how – and when – to talk to your kids about driving.
Toddler to pre-teen: In the opening scene of "The Simpsons," baby Maggie is in the back seat sucking on a pacifier, and seeming to control the car with her plastic steering wheel.
And that's when kids are watching us most intently, before they have books to read and friends to worry about. That's when they're absorbing how we react when a car cuts us off (although drivers who leave enough space between themselves and the car ahead don't generally get cut off), how we deal with our cellphones, and whether or not we wear our seatbelts.
"It starts when your child is still in that car seat," Sophy said. "Be aware of the fact that when you're raging or you're upset or you're cutting someone off, that behavior is being observed."
Once they start sitting up front: State laws vary, but around 12 years old, kids can start sitting up front with the driver. It's not too early to start talking about what you're doing behind the wheel.
One of the biggest skills teen drivers lack is the ability to scan the road safely, so now is the time to start pointing things out. It's as easy as saying, "See that truck, how it looks like it's not going to slow down at the stop sign?" Or "See that car up ahead, how it's kind of swerving a bit? Wonder if the driver is on his phone."
You can also point out how the car feels when you're going around a tight curve, or point out how you're slowing down because of the weather.
"One of the toughest things to learn is road feel," said Mike Speck, lead instructor at Ford's Driving Skills For Life.
But again, being a role model is key.
"The single easiest way to teach your kids to drive is to drive they way you want them to drive," Speck said.
When it's time to get that permit: This is when most parents begin to lose their minds. Sitting in the passenger seat while your teen is at the wheel can be ulcer-inducing. A quiet ride down a neighborhood street can quickly devolve into screaming and tears.
Durbin says parents need to chill out. One way to do that is to realize that your novice driver is going to make a lot of mistakes. He or she is not trying to be careless or reckless. A new driver is trying to process sights and sounds they've never experienced, to maneuver a 3,000-pound car down the road without killing themselves and you, and are possibly dealing with a screaming lunatic in the passenger seat.
"When teens make mistakes – and they will, that's what the supervised driving period is all about -- we'd like parents to instinctively think, 'Oh, he must not know how to do that,' and then teach them that skill," Durbin said. "That's one of the tangible things parents can do to help set a more supportive environment in the car."
And if you cannot calm down, find another adult who can.
This is not the time to start talking about how their day was, that test they failed, or their plans for the weekend. Parents often think driving lessons could be a good bonding time, but time in the car should be about driving, Durbin said. "The conversation should only be about driving, and if that means there are periods of silence, then that's OK," he said.
Durbin said he ended up bonding more deeply with his teen daughter after teaching her, despite the limited conversation. "It is a remarkable milestone for teens to be able to drive," he said. "Parents should want to be involved in helping them achieve that."
Once they're driving: Once your teens are able to leave the house without you, it's time to set some very clear rules. Explain that these rules are intended to keep them safe, and will be relaxed over time if he or she keeps a clean driving record and follows the rules for six months. No speeding tickets and mandatory seatbelt use are the first basic rules.
Researchers say one of the best things parents can do is prevent teens from having their own car. Sharing the family car means teens are forced to check in with parents regularly, and they are more careful with the vehicle if it's not their own. Car sharing reduces accidents by 53%, research from the Children's Hospital showed.
Then, teens should go six to 12 months without driving other passengers in the car. Not only are passengers distracting, but the consequences in case of an accident could be dire. Do you really want your teen to carry the burden of killing their friend because they made a novice mistake?
These are the limits on teen driving introduced in "graduated licensing" laws in states such as Connecticut and Illinois. But parents can lay down these limits even without the state legislature.
Limit the routes your teen can drive to places they know well. To work, to school, to a handful of friend's homes. No high speed driving until you've practiced that with your teen, and you feel comfortable he or she is capable of handling it on their own.
No driving in inclement weather, especially snow or ice. This is another skill that needs lots of practice, preferably with an experienced driver in the passenger seat. Also, no driving drowsy, like heading out to school after pulling an all-nighter to study for a test.
At all ages: Keep the lines of communication open and let them know they can count on you for help. If they make a mistake, try to stay calm. Offer them rides if they find themselves in a bad situation, like a party where they or their driver has been drinking. You can create a code word they can text you if they need help, and you can come pick them up right away.
And being the strict parent isn't always a bad thing. Teens don't have to say, "No, I can't drive you because I'm trying to be safe." They can say, "No, my dad would kill me if I drove you." Then you are the bad guy, and they save face.
As difficult it may be to swallow the fear that comes along with teaching your teen to drive, do it.
"Parents are the most important in this process," Durbin said. "Teens look to parents to support, guide and develop their skills ... It's probably the single most important role in driving education."
Next week: The teen driving series will look at the best car picks for young drivers.