It’s a Catch-22. One reason why traffic crashes remain the No. 1 cause of adolescent injuries and deaths in the United States is because young drivers lack experience. They are inundated with information and distraction. They feel like they know what they’re doing — but they don’t have the experience to handle sudden, unexpected events.
So, the best way for them to become better drivers is to become experienced. But how do we get teens experience without substantial risk?
Graduated driver’s licensing laws like the one in Oregon can help by providing additional supervised time behind the wheel and by requiring teens to drive in the daytime and with fewer distracting passengers. These laws phase in exposure to more demanding driving conditions.
Unfortunately, although graduated driver’s licensing has been shown to reduce fatalities among 16- and 17-year-olds, the fatality rate goes up again among 18-year-olds, according to a policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
What can parents do to provide a safer driving experience for their teens?
The top tip for raising a safe driver is to be a safe driver yourself. Always wear seat belts. Never drive drunk or high. Eliminate distractions. Never text and drive. Avoid speeding, following too closely, or jockeying for lane position. You’re a role model.
The second most important tip may be to continue supervising your teen when they’re behind the wheel. Most people can’t wait until their teens become self-sufficient, but commit to continuing to ride with your learning teen even after the law allows you to relax your vigilance. This helps transfer the lessons of your experience to your new driver.
In today’s world, the biggest risk for teens might be distraction. Not only are teens texting and driving, but they can be distracted by other teens in the car, changing the music, social media or even navigation apps.
“Teenage drivers have the highest rate of distraction-related fatal crashes of all other age groups,” one researcher reported to the New York Times.
Talk to your teens about distraction. There are three kinds of distractions: manual, visual and cognitive. Technology can be all three kinds, causing driving risk to skyrocket.
The good news is that alcohol is less of a factor for today’s teens than it has been in the past. Nevertheless, it remains a serious risk factor, the American Academy of Pediatrics says. For example, in 2015, 16% of teen drivers who were involved in fatal collisions were found to have a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or higher. That was true even though all 50 states have zero-tolerance laws for underage drinking and driving.
Sleep deprivation can be a real problem for teens, and it increases the risk of a crash. Not only could a drowsy teen fall asleep at the wheel, but they could simply be a less effective driver as the lack of sleep impairs their judgment and attention to detail.
A safe car is a must for teens — even if they may ding it up. Instead of buying a cheap, disposable car for your teen to practice on, consider buying the safest, most up-to-date car you can afford. Why? Newer cars come with better safety features like lane-departure warnings and collision avoidance.
Finally, parents and teens should consider signing a driving behavior contract. This could spell out the risks, responsibilities and expectations for the driver. For a prototype agreement, go to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ website.