Handing over the Keys: Helping teens become safe drivers

Learning to drive is an important rite of passage for most teens. It offers them greater freedom, reduces their dependence on parents and can provide new opportunities to pursue extracurricular activities, part-time jobs and time with friends. Parents also benefit as they are freed from the responsibility of having to chauffer their teens. Unfortunately, along with these new opportunities, comes great responsibility and significant risk. In fact, the number 1 cause of death for teens between the ages of 16-19 is automobile accidents and nearly 1 in 4 teens will be in an accident in their first 6 months of driving. Consequently, it is critical for parents and teens to understand these dangers and what can be done to reduce them.

Why is teen driving so risky?

There are a number of reasons why teenagers are at such high risk for car accidents. They include:

  • The immaturity and inexperience of young drivers. Adolescent drivers tend to overestimate their own driving abilities while underestimating the dangers of driving. For instance, new drivers are more likely to speed and have a harder time estimating the time needed to come to a stop. At the same time the inexperience of teen drivers makes it harder for them to anticipate and respond to driving hazards when they occur (e.g., slippery roadways or bumper to bumper traffic).
  • Young drivers have the lowest rate of seat belt use among all drivers. It is well known that seat belts save lives but recent statistics indicate that 56% of teens involved in fatal automobile crashes were not wearing their seatbelts.
  • New drivers are more sensitive to distractions when driving and teen drivers and passengers are more likely to engage in behavior that is distracting. Young drivers 16-19 are the most likely age group to talk and text on their cell phones while driving. In fact, teens who text while driving are more than 20 times more likely to have an accident. Texting while driving is 6 times more likely to cause an accident than driving drunk.
  • Adolescent drivers are easily distracted by the presence of other passengers, especially friends. The presence of just one non-family passenger increases the rate of accidents by 44%. The risk doubles with a second passenger and quadruples when teens have 3 or more friends in the car.
  • Teens who drink and drive are at a much higher risk of accidents than adults. Almost a third of teen drivers killed in crashes had been drinking alcohol. While young drivers are less likely than adults to drive after drinking alcohol, their risk of having an accident is substantially higher when they do. This is especially true at low and moderate blood alcohol concentrations, and is thought to be the result of the combined relative inexperience of teen drivers with both drinking and driving.
  • Teens do more of their driving at night than other drivers when the chances of fatal accidents are higher. Lack of driving experience, in tandem with visibility challenges and slower response time due to fatigue, makes night driving more perilous for teens. The lack of light reduces the field of vision making it more difficult to judge the speed and distance of other vehicles, a skill set that young drivers are just starting to develop.
  • Teens are often sleep deprived. Teens need significantly more sleep than adults. While they require on average 9 hours of sleep per night most teens average just 7.4 hours. Moreover, compared to adults, teens are more likely to underestimate how tired they actually are. The lack of sleep can impair judgement and decrease vigilance and awareness.

What can parents do to reduce teen accidents and make teen driving safer?

  • Make sure your teen gets plenty of supervised on the road driving experience. Most graduated licensing programs require at least 50 hours of experience, but in general, the more the better. Supervised experience is one of the most effective tools for helping your teen become a good driver. Be sure to give your teen opportunities to drive in a wide range of situations, including a variety of weather conditions, at night and under challenging circumstances like high traffic times, so that they will develop the skills to be more competent drivers when they find themselves in such situations.
  • Enhance the learning process by asking your teens questions about what they might do in unexpected and problematic driving situations and sharing your voice of experience when teens aren’t sure of the answer. This should include ‘what if’ conversations about what to do if an accident or mistake occurs on the road.
  • Foster a supportive environment where your teen feels comfortable talking to you about their driving concerns. Because teens want to appear independent and capable they may be reluctant to talk with you about driving concerns or questions that arise such as driving in bad weather or pressure to have too many friends in the car. Having a relationship where teens feel comfortable sharing their concerns will not only provide a valuable opportunity for teaching how to handle such situations but it can help you to reassure your teen that it’s OK not to drive in challenging situations where they do not feel safe or capable. Equally important, if teens feel comfortable sharing their concerns, they will be more likely to contact parents when they have an accident. Teens are often hesitant to do this because they think their parents will become upset and punish them. However, it is critical that accidents aren’t hidden from the parents and that the moment be used as a teaching opportunity.
  • Even after teens have completed their graduated license, try to keep in place many of the same driving rules as you can. Most graduated licenses put restrictions on night driving and a limit on the number of teen passengers allowed in the car. Although many parents disregard these rules once they expire, they are good rules to maintain. While restricting night driving may be difficult for some families, having rules that limit the number of friends in the car can be very helpful since the highest risk of accidents occurs when teens are driving around with a carload of friends.
  • Continue to reinforce rules and consequences associated with risky driving practices. Most teens know that they’re supposed to wear seatbelts and that it’s not safe to text, check for messages or talk on their cell phone while driving. Nevertheless, be sure to clearly state the rules and discuss the consequences if rules are broken. A contract between parents and teen drivers is a good way to develop and maintain safe-driving practices. This will make it easier to follow through on consequences if rules are broken. AAA has a sample agreement that parents and young drivers can sign that lays out the consequences in advance.
  • Let your child drive the safest and largest car possible. Newer cars are more likely to be safer because they are equipped with the latest safety features (e.g., electronic stability control, collision and lane changing warning systems), but teens often drive older models because they are cheaper and parents may be less concerned if it gets scratched or damaged. Teens are also more likely to drive smaller cars which makes them more likely to be injured should an accident occur.

Driving  provides teens with new opportunities to explore their world and develop greater independence. However, it also brings with it significant risk for injury and death, especially when teens are new drivers. Having clear rules, providing opportunities for supervised driving experience and monitoring driving behavior is the best insurance that teens will be develop into safe, capable and responsible drivers.



SteveStephen Small is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Human Development & Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Extension, Cooperative Extension.  He and his wife, Gay Eastman, have been married for more than 32 years. They are the parents of 3 former teenagers (Sarah, Zach & Abby) and grandparents of 1 year old Briella.