Learning to drive is a rite of passage and parents can play a vital role in their teenagers’ development behind the steering wheel.

Child Health, Family Health | 11 months ago

How Parents Can Help Their Children Become Safe Young Drivers

Learning to drive is a rite of passage and parents can play a vital role in their teenagers’ development behind the steering wheel.

As a pediatric emergency medicine physician with Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital, Amy Puchalski, MD, is well aware of the dangers associated with teenage drivers. 

A mother with three teenagers at various stages of driving experience, Dr. Puchalski is equally aware of parents’ concerns when their children slide behind a steering wheel.

“It’s an important part of teenagers developing their independence,” she says. “Their goal is to become independent, responsible adults, and parents or guardians need to make sure teens develop driving skills as safely as possible.”

Age-Related Risk Factors

Dr. Puchalski calls the process “exciting but nerve-racking.” According to the Centers for Disease Control, the risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among teens aged 16-19 than among any other age group. Per mile driven, teen drivers in that age group are nearly three times as likely as drivers aged 20-or-older to be in a fatal crash.

Risk factors rise sharply for male drivers aged 16-19; teens driving with teen passengers; and teen drivers within their first months of licensure. Other top risk factors for the age group include nighttime/weekend driving, not using seat belts, distracted driving, speeding, and alcohol use. 

“It’s important to make sure you’re open to conversation with your teen driver,” Dr. Puchalski says. “Make them feel that they can talk to you and trust you. Make sure they don’t think every time you’re in the car you’re going to nag them and yell at them.” 

She adds that growth is necessary from the person in the driver’s seat and the passenger seat as well. “Getting used to being their supervising driver is something that develops with experience.”

The Road to Independence

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of Graduated Driver’s Licensing; programs that allow young drivers to safely gain experience before obtaining full driving privileges. After receiving their learner’s permit, young drivers can face restrictions on nighttime driving, highway driving, unsupervised driving, and the age and/or number of passengers in the car.

Dr. Puchalski says it’s normal for parents to be nervous – given teen drivers’ increased risk factors – and it’s OK to implement your own restrictions on passengers, hours, etc. “You might want to require more supervised driving time, even more than is required by the state,” she says. “That way they can deal with various conditions that come up with driving. 

“When you see an error or have advice, calmly ask them to pull over and talk about it,” she says. “Or write it down to go over later. Do it in a calm manner and ask for their feedback. How do they think it went? What could’ve been done better? Give them scenarios: ‘What if you’re in this situation?’”

It’s also important to remember that your children aren’t clones and won’t necessarily resemble one another as drivers. “Each child develops certain skills at different rates, even motor skills,” Dr. Puchalski says. “Judgment and reaction time can be wildly different with every kid. If you’re aware of that, you have a better sense of how they can be safe and responsible drivers.”

Put It in Writing

Atrium Health Levine Children’s and Safe Kids of the Carolinas have developed a Parent-Young Driver Agreement to help both parties through this rite of passage. The pact lays out what’s expected of young drivers and encourages them to take responsibility for being safe. Similar agreements come from the CDC/American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations, and they can be modified as desired.

“They’re a great way to have a conversation with teens about expectations for their driving,” Dr. Puchalski says. “They also can spell out consequences for what happens when the rules aren’t followed. You talk beforehand, when everyone is calm before an incident occurs, so everyone starts on the same page.”

Working at the area’s only Level 1 pediatric trauma center, she sees some of the most severely injured children, including those involving motor vehicles. The CDC reports that in 2019, nearly 2,400 teens in the U.S. aged 13-19 were killed, and about 258,00 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor vehicle crashes.

“We have a lot of experience treating these kids, and it’s good to be at a center with lots of experience,” Dr. Puchalski says. 

“We just hope we need it less and less.”

Advice for Parents of New Drivers

  • Always be a good role model when behind the wheel.
  • Discuss potential traffic scenarios before hitting the road.
  • Teach divers how to signal their intentions to drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.
  • Discuss emergency situations (driving off the road, skidding, tire blowouts, etc.)
  • Correct mistakes immediately but save detailed discussion for after the drive.
  • Make driver practice variety of routine skills and practices.
  • If necessary, require more practice before allowing increased independence.