Few teenage rites of passage are met with as much sheer excitement (for them) and unsurpassed terror (for us) as when our offspring hit the open road. Not since they took their first wobbly steps away from our protective embrace have we wished so vehemently for a massive bubble capable of safeguarding their every move.
Unfortunately, as they enthusiastically slide behind the wheel armed with their newly minted licenses, our teens are revved up about one thing and one thing only: putting the pedal to the metal toward total independence.
Meanwhile, we’re left dredging up every gruesome statistic we’ve been filing away since our babies conquered those very first strides. Because as much as we’ve tried to deny that it’s coming, as much as we yearn to put the brakes on it, the moment we’ve been counting down to with dread for the past 16 years has finally arrived. Fasten your seat belts.
Our parental trepidation is not without cause. Data shows the risk of crashing is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than any other age group, and car accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers across the United States. Even more frightening, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, is that during their first six months of driving solo, the newly licensed are about eight times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than are more experienced drivers.
It’s undeniably a lot of information—and emotions—to navigate. So until the day that protective bubble hits the market, you might consider the following six tips for making the road to teen driving a little less bumpy:
1. Say yes to texting. Without a doubt, we should incessantly drive home the message of never, ever text while driving. But the moment the engine stops, I put that rule into reverse. A text message is my number-one directive when my teens depart from and arrive at any destination. A lengthy communication is neither required nor desired; just a simple “at school” gives me the peace of mind not to completely lose my shit when I subsequently hear a siren wail in the distance. Likewise, when “leaving the beach now” pops up across my screen, I can calculate the amount of time I should reasonably expect to pass before my kid’s sand-covered feet are (safely) traipsing across my just-vacuumed floor.
I was a stickler for this rule; in fact, I grounded my son the first time he forgot to notify me that he was leaving the baseball field and heading to a friend’s house for an impromptu basketball game. The amount of time that transpired between my realizing how long it had been since I’d heard from him, then not being able to reach him, then—heart plunges into my stomach—learning from a teammate’s mom that practice had ended more than an hour earlier, was indisputably the longest 10 minutes of my life, moments I wanted to ensure my child would never again force me to repeat.
2. Lock it up. Studies show that six out of 10 teen crashes involve some form of driver distraction. So to remove the slightest temptation that my boys might take a quick peek when the multitude of beeps, bells and vibrations emanate from their phones, I insist that they secure the devices within the glove box while driving. Out of sight, out of mind.
3. Trust your instincts. My eldest had held his license for only three weeks when he asked if he could drive to the beach on the Fourth of July. “That’s a bad idea,” I told him without even giving it a second thought, citing colossal crowds, scarce parking and an overall propensity for pandemonium. Heck, it had been 25 years since I’d gotten my license and even I didn’t dare venture near the venue on a holiday weekend. But despite my (very reasonable) objections, my son eventually managed to wear me down and I reluctantly handed over the keys. Surprise! Not even two hours later, he was calling in a panic after getting into a fender bender.
Granted, my boy was merely fulfilling his statistical destiny; the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reveals that teenage drivers are most likely to cause a car accident within their first month of unsupervised driving. Regardless, had I listened to my gut, we would have avoided the fiasco altogether.
4. Follow the law. At the risk of sounding preachy, I continue to be amazed by the number of parents who don’t enforce the rules of provisional licenses. The restrictions may vary by state, but in California, new licensees are not permitted to drive passengers other than adults for the first 12 months. While I realize this statute may prove to be less than convenient at times—for me, we’re talking exactly 2,782 times, which is the number of requests I had to deny my own teens when they asked if they could give a ride to so-and-so just this one time—but the truth is, the stipulation exists for a (rather frightening) reason. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the presence of teen passengers increases the crash risk of unsupervised young drivers, a threat that multiplies with each additional teen traveler in the car.
5. Make their vehicle “big, slow and ugly.” That’s the advice of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which encourages parents to consider safety features, size, style, crash-test ratings and reliability reviews whenever it’s financially feasible. While the price tags and fuel economy of small cars are undeniably appealing, it’s the bigger, heavier vehicles that offer better protection in a crash compared to their compact counterparts.
Similarly, if you’re considering upgrading your own vehicle and perhaps passing down your aging sports model to your teen, you may want to switch gears. Experts caution parents to steer clear of putting their kids into high-performance vehicles that tend to bring out the worst in drivers. After all, how many teens are going to attempt any 0-to-80 miles-per-hour records in mom’s minivan? With that in mind, I bequeathed my cherished (and 5-star safety rated) Volvo to my firstborn, while my second son cruises around town in an older, bulky F150 truck.
6. Instill in them that driving is a privilege, not an entitlement. I required both of my teens to earn—and maintain—the right to drive by upholding a specified grade point average, demonstrating a respectful attitude and staying trouble-free. They also had to perform extra household chores every summer in exchange for gas money. Furthermore, I warned them that if they were to receive a ticket or be involved in a significant accident deemed their fault, the resulting skyrocketing insurance premiums would likely take the keys out of their hands faster than they could say “Mario Andretti.” I firmly believe that requiring my boys to have a stake in the privilege of driving made them more likely to be both responsible and appreciative of the opportunity.
When the rubber meets the road, I have to admit that adhering to these guidelines hasn’t completely revoked my license to worry. But the tips have accelerated my ability to relax a little bit and helped prevent my teen drivers from driving me, well, completely crazy.
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