Teen Driver Safety: What Families Should Discuss Before Handing Over the Keys

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Learning to drive is a rite of passage for most American teenagers. U.S. adults, who spend an average of 87 minutes per day in their cars under normal circumstances, have substantial experience behind the wheel. But when you’re a teen, even drivers education classes or private lessons may not be enough to prepare you for certain situations when you’re out on the open road.

You may already know how eager your teen is to gain their independence and start driving. But because teens are far more vulnerable to crashes due to their inexperience, it’s important for parents to be proactive and prepare their teens for scenarios they might encounter. It’s also essential to ensure your teen possesses the responsibility and wherewithal to plan for these situations and to react accordingly. To that end, here’s some information you’ll need to discuss with your teen driver before you ever hand over the keys to your vehicle.

Set Some House Rules or Sign an Agreement

Research conducted by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia revealed that teens with parents who set rules and pay attention to their activities in a supportive way are half as likely to be involved in a car crash. In order to keep your child safe, you’ll need to establish guidelines for safe driving and ensure your teen follows them to the letter.

Your family should go over state driving laws and ensure your teen has a thorough understanding of what’s permitted, especially for youth drivers. Even if your state does not have laws that explicitly prohibit certain behaviors, parents need to step in and set guidelines for what’s allowed. There should be absolutely no cell phone use while driving, whether it be handheld or hands-free operation. Drivers and all passengers should always wear seatbelts and there should be no peer passengers within the first six months of driving. Driving should be distraction-free, as well, meaning that eating or even changing the radio station should be prohibited once the car is no longer parked. There should be absolutely no drug or alcohol use for drivers of any age (there were roughly 1.2 million arrests for drug violations in the U.S. in 2016), but it’s particularly important to drive that message home for teen drivers (who may not be able to discern their level of impairedness). Nighttime driving should also be avoided during the initial months of having a valid license.

Parents may also want to discuss controlling the keys to ensure their teen has to ask before using the car or will only be permitted to have the car for a set amount of time. Your teen’s use of the car may also need to depend on parental priorities, meaning that obligations like getting to work or to important appointments take precedent over your teen’s social or recreational use. It may be a good idea to map out a schedule or make your teen’s responsibilities include giving rides to siblings, if needed.

Many families choose to outline and sign a formal agreement to ensure all rules are followed and that there are set consequences for breaking those rules. You can create your own teen or download a driver contract using resources from AAA, the CDC, and other organizations.

Talk About Maintenance and Accident Preparedness

Road safety isn’t solely about abstaining from risky behaviors. Your teen also needs to take responsibility for vehicle maintenance and make sure they’re prepared if they’re involved in an accident. After all, cars need upkeep and collisions can happen as a result of situations other than teenaged recklessness.

Whether you include it in your driver agreement or simply give your teen an introduction to vehicle upkeep, make sure to drive home the importance of refueling the vehicle, recognizing illuminated safety lights, checking the tire pressure, keeping windows and backup cameras clean, and other basic tasks. Make sure your teen knows that if something goes wrong with the car that they can always come to you for guidance. If a hailstone cracks the windshield, for instance, and the crack is more than a foot long, you’ll probably need to replace the glass. Alternatively, if the windshield wipers or fluids need to be replaced, talk to them about coming to you as soon as possible, rather than ignoring the issue. This can help to keep them safe and ensure your car will remain operable for the foreseeable future.

You’ll also want to talk to your teen about how to handle worst-case scenarios. If they lock the keys in the car, for example, they should know exactly what to do. Since the U.S. sees over 16,000 home and car lockouts each day, they should know who they can call for roadside assistance or where to find a backup key for the car. And if they’re involved in a crash, whether or not their behavior was to blame, they should already know the step-by-step process for getting help, filing a police report, finding their registration and insurance information, and contacting you. While an accident will likely be scary and stressful, knowing how to act in those scenarios can eliminate some of those emotional pressures.

Discuss Common Road Dangers

Although road hazards can make the surroundings unsafe for drivers of any age, teens are less likely to respond in the best ways due to their inexperience. Be sure to talk to your teenager about avoiding driving in bad weather; if they’re caught on the road in the middle of a storm, they should know how to adjust their driving behaviors to ensure they stay safe. It’s not a bad idea to go over ways to respond in conditions of snow, sleet, rain, or ice to ensure they make good decisions. It’s also recommended that parents discuss watching for wildlife and the best ways to respond quickly if an animal comes out of nowhere. Their instinct might be to swerve, but that can put them in danger (and make insurance claims more complicated). Make sure your teen knows how to drive in areas prone to wildlife activity and exactly what to do if a deer or other animal crosses their path.

It’s not easy for parents to cut the proverbial cord and allow their teens to start driving — especially when you know the dangers involved. But by instating these rules and having these important discussions, both teens and parents will be prepared for the worst and can mitigate those negative outcomes successfully.

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