Handing over the car keys to your teenager for the first time is not an event for the faint of heart, but your state's laws have your back. They're designed to restrict what minors can and cannot do behind the wheel. Parents are mostly grateful for them, but at least one new law in New Jersey has some dads concerned.
When can your child start driving?
Most states have implemented graduated driver licensing laws designed to give teens some time to transition from novices to experienced drivers. Minors typically graduate from a learner's permit to an intermediate provisional license, then finally to a real driver's license. Both permits and provisional licenses come with many more restrictions than regular driver's licenses.
Minors must wait until at least age 15 for a learner's permit in 23 states. A handful of states make kids wait until age 16 - these are mostly in the northeast. Kids can start driving at 14 in six states, most of which are known for their rural geography, like Montana and North Dakota.
Home by midnight - or earlier
Curfews for teen drivers are a standard precaution in 49 states and the District of Columbia, but minors in Vermont can drive at all hours. Idaho teenagers can only drive from sunrise to sunset, but most states allow kids to remain on the road until 11 p.m. or midnight.
One passenger at a time
Driving laws also forbid teens from piling into Dad's sedan and tooling around town with their friends. Most states - 46 plus the District of Columbia - restrict the number of passengers a minor can have in his vehicle when he's driving on a permit or provisional license. Florida, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota are the exceptions. Most states limit kids to one passenger, but they make exceptions for family members. Some prohibit any passengers at all except family members for the first few months.
Some states are a bit stricter
Some states go beyond the usual curfew and passenger restrictions for teenagers. For example, parents in Utah must sign a declaration assuming financial responsibility for any damages caused by their teen drivers. Illinois not only penalizes young drivers for carrying more than the legal number of passengers, but it also imposes fines on the additional passengers if they are between the ages of 15 and 19. In Georgia, teens younger than 18 must be enrolled in a public or private school to be eligible to drive.
Then there's New Jersey. It's the only state to require novice driver decals on vehicles operated by anyone under 21 who has not been driving with a full-privilege driver's license for at least a year. As of May 2010, these red stickers are supposed to be affixed to the car's license plates or parents must pay a $100 fine. The idea is to allow law enforcement to more closely monitor young drivers and to alert other drivers to be more wary because there's an inexperienced kid behind the wheel. But many parents object that the decals are flags for predators. Others argue that the decals result in a form of profiling - police are more critical of the operation of red-sticker cars. Some parents elect to simply pay the fine rather than to put their kids at risk.
To learn more about your state's minor driving laws, visit the Governors Highway Safety Association website.
*Statistics and figures used in this article are up-to-date as of April 2016.