Now that my adolescent son has his learner's permit, how can I adequately prepare him to drive? I have to admit that I'm more than a little apprehensive about him becoming a driver at such a young age. Can you offer any pointers or advice?
Your concerns are not unfounded. It's no coincidence that automobile insurance rates are greatly increased for adolescent drivers, especially males. Motor-vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among young people ages 15 through 24. More than three thousand young drivers die every year.
There are reasons for these statistics, of course. Inexperience is a major risk factor for teens involved in accidents. Many of them don't have the judgment and decision-making abilities required to avoid trouble on the highways. They also lack a healthy sense of their own mortality, and as a result they are more inclined to engage in risky behaviors. Teenagers love to hang out and drive around with their friends, but for a 16-year-old driver the likelihood of having a fatal accident increases nearly 40 percent when one non-adult passenger is present, nearly 90 percent with two and nearly 300 percent with three or more young riders.
In light of all this, you may feel ready to vow that your teen will never sit behind the wheel of a car until he's in his twenties and living on his own. But that's not realistic. Besides, that kind of mind-set is counterproductive and insulting to teens who really want to learn how to drive safely. It's far more constructive to view the adolescent years as a time when adults can teach safe driving habits and influence a young driver's behavior for life, passing on skills and knowledge that may save lives many years in the future.
There are a number of important things to keep in mind during this process.
- First, be patient. Helping your son learn to drive may be a nerve-wracking experience for you, but it's much more so for him. So when you're acting as his instructor, keep your head about you and give all directions calmly and clearly. Be liberal with encouragement and praise. It will make a huge difference if you simply stay cool.
- Second, remember that it's important to model safe driving habits for your adolescent. Know the traffic laws for your state and be prepared to enforce additional limits and expectations based on his attitude and skill. Observe the speed limit and be courteous of other drivers. For better or worse, children will imitate their parents.
- Third, think about granting driving privileges on an incremental basis. Recognizing that driver-education courses by themselves are not a complete preparation for novice motorists, some states have instituted graduated driver's licensing for teens. A system of this kind is designed to phase teens into full driving privileges by allowing them to mature and develop their skills in a series of steps. For example, a stage-one driver might not be allowed to drive after dark, while in stage two he might be permitted to drive at night but only with adult supervision. Even if your state hasn't instituted a plan like this, you might consider adopting this approach in your own family. This will allow your teen to gain the experience he needs while reducing some of the risks.
- Fourth, make a point of underscoring the importance of basic safety rules. Always require everyone in the car, driver and passengers, to buckle up before the engine is started. This is another area where your example speaks louder than your words. In addition, your adolescent should never drive if he is drowsy. And while there are many good reasons for him to abstain from alcohol and drugs, don't fail to drive home the message that drinking and driving kills thousands of people every year. No matter how strongly you might feel about the use of alcohol, let your son know that he can always call you for a ride in order to avoid being in a car with an intoxicated driver – whether himself or someone else.
- Finally, if you see unsafe driving patterns or habits that your adolescent refuses to correct, don't let him have the keys. The first thing would-be drivers need to learn is that driving is a privilege, not a right. Your first priority is not to win a popularity contest but to keep him (and others on the road) alive and well while he learns to operate an automobile safely and skillfully.
Privileges and Rewards of Teen Driving: Joe White advises parents on how to survive their teen learning to drive and ways to encourage responsible and safe driving habits.
Boundaries With Teens