Talking With Teens About Safe Driving

Getting a driver’s permit or license comes with a new amount of freedom for teens — but also a new amount of risk. In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, inexperienced teen drivers are twice as likely as adult drivers to be in a fatal crash.

The Injury Prevention team at ProMedica Russell J Ebeid Children’s Hospital is tackling the topic of safe teen driving with a hands-on collaborative approach. Through efforts in local schools and other community organizations, injury prevention specialists Payton Bowyer, MPH, CPST, and Taylor Meehan, BSPH, CPST, help teens and parents recognize the risks of the road and make safe decisions before handing over the keys.

Recognize Top Teen Driving Risks

Knowing the leading causes of teen car accidents can help parents prepare young drivers to drive safely on the road. Bowyer and Meehan outline three risks that contribute to teen car crashes.

1. Distracted Driving

When the brain is distracted, it can make it challenging to react during a potential crash. “Cell phones, eating and drinking are common distractions for young drivers,” says Bowyer. Talking and texting take a driver’s hands and minds off the road. But apps like TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram are also tempting teens to be on their phones while driving or in traffic. Encouraging teens to set their phones to a “do not disturb” setting or keeping their cell phone out of reach while behind the wheel can help them stay focused on the road.

Hands-free cell phone use is not only a danger to inexperienced drivers, but to all drivers in general. “We tell teens not to do hands-free talking or texting while driving either,” says Bowyer. “Because even if you aren’t pushing buttons, these activities still take your mind off the road.”

2. Friends in the Car

Friends and additional passengers in the car can be a major distraction to young drivers. Conversations, loud music and activity can affect a driver’s focus and increase the likelihood of a crash.

“Every time you add a passenger to your car, your risk of being in a crash increases exponentially,” says Meehan. “That’s why almost every state has laws about limiting passengers in the car for drivers under 18.

3. Speeding and Risky Driving

Some of the common risks associated with risky driving include speeding, accelerating too quickly, swerving and slamming on the brakes. Each of these actions increases the likelihood of a crash occurring.

“With fewer cars on the road during the pandemic, there’s more temptation and ability to speed,” says Bowyer.

Parents should have conversations with their teen drivers about speeding, how to manage speed for different road conditions, weather and traffic. They should also talk about other risky driving behaviors.

Talk with Your Teen Early and Often

Bowyer and Meehan recommend having conversations with your kids about safe driving early and often. Teenagers are still developing emotional maturity, and they learn and absorb information differently than adults.

They also recommend steering clear of lectures and scare tactics, which are less likely to influence their behavior. Instead, parents should consider using real-life examples and providing short-term consequences.

Discuss the Importance of Seatbelts

Teens have a tendency not to buckle up (or require their passengers to), even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that wearing a seatbelt can reduce serious injuries and death in crashes by 50%.

“We’re seeing a correlation between not wearing a seatbelt and more severe injuries — and even fatalities — in car accidents,” says Meehan. “Teens are taking the risk, expecting the airbags to protect them and relying on advanced safety features in the car. But airbags are meant to work with a seatbelt; they’re not meant to protect you on their own.”

Talk with your teen about the benefits of buckling up and encourage seatbelt use for everyone in the car.

Be Prepared As a Parent

Additionally, parents can prepare for conversations with teen drivers by:

  • Creating a safe driving contract. Have a conversation with your teen about ground rules for safe driving and agree on the consequences if they violate the rules. The CDC has a parent-teen driving contract that parents can use to help their teens become responsible drivers.
  • Knowing your state laws. All 50 states have developed three-stage graduated driver licensing systems. These laws set restrictions for night driving, passengers and cell phone use while behind the wheel.
  • Setting a good example. Your teens have been watching you behind the wheel since they were in car seats. Set a good example by wearing a seatbelt for every trip, keeping your eyes and hands on the road, following speed limits, obeying laws and avoiding distractions.

As a parent, you play a critical role in helping your teen balance the responsibilities and risks that come with driving. Supporting them and setting standards while gaining experience can help them become safe and confident behind the wheel.