Laying Down the Law for Your Teen Driver

If you knew the best way to keep your teen driver safe, you'd do it, wouldn't you?

Teen driving researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and other safety groups have spent decades studying teen vehicle fatalities and have determined what puts teen drivers at the most risk: driving at night, transporting passengers, getting a learner's permit before age 16 and getting a full license before age 18.

Since these risk factors have been proven, you might think that most states would outlaw them. Not so fast. The IIHS says that none of the 50 states has what it calls an "optimal" licensing program for teen drivers. Instead, the Institute says the laws aren't keeping up with the latest research.

Many — no doubt, most — parents simply let the law of their state become the law in their house. Safety experts say that's a mistake. At the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Center for Injury Research and Prevention, where they've been studying teen driving behavior for more than a year, "the idea of a household GDL [graduated driver license] has been one of our mantras," said spokeswoman Dana Mortensen.

Mortensen said parents of teen drivers can and should step in to fill the void left by their states' laws. Research shows that the following components would be part of an ideal graduated licensing program.

  1. A minimum age of 16 for a teen driver to get a learner's permit.
  2. A learner stage that lasts at least six months and requires parents to certify they've supervised at least 30-50 hours of their teen's driving.
  3. An intermediate stage that lasts until at least age 18 and includes both a night driving restriction (starting at 9 or 10 p.m.) and a strict teen passenger restriction, allowing either no teenage passengers, or no more than one.
The restrictions appear to be working. Crashes involving teen drivers transporting other teens dropped 41 percent between 1996 — when graduated licensing laws limited the number of passengers started being adopted in states — and 2005, according to a June 2007 IIHS report. During the same period, fatal crashes involving 16-year-olds driving alone fell 24 percent, underscoring the benefits of delaying full licenses. And nighttime fatal crashes among 16-year-old drivers were down 48 percent from 1996-'05. Importantly, the gains were not offset by increased fatalities for drivers 17 and older.

How does your state rate? The IIHS lists state graduated licensing laws and their ratings.

A lot of parents say it's easier to have the backing of their state legislators when it comes to setting limits for their children. But do we really want to be relying on the government when it comes to the safety of such important people in our lives? Here are some facts to help convince you that what passes a state legislature isn't necessarily the perfect solution. In cases where your argument needs some bolstering, they also provide good support for limiting use of the family car.

Getting a Full License at 16
Sixteen-year-olds have the highest rate of crashes, including fatal ones, of any age group, and most of those crashes occur in the months immediately after they get their full licenses. Stretching out the learner's permit period has proven to be life-saving, in part because teens are driving with their parents. That's no help, of course, if you want your teen to drive himself to school or the movies. But isn't it worth inconveniencing your family a bit to provide your teen with more low-risk experience? Why not put off full licenses in your house until at least age 17? Your healthy teen may some day thank you for it.

Joan Goodman, a licensed clinical social worker in Maryland who specializes in adolescent mental health, reminds parents that teens do not all reach the appropriate level of maturity to handle a driver license at the same time. While teens may see a driver license as a right, Goodman recommends that parents consider whether teens are easily distracted, frustrated or provoked to anger before allowing them to get a license or even a learner's permit.

"Parents, I don't think, understand that they have the ability to say, 'No, you're not ready to drive,'" says Goodman.

Nighttime Driving
Driving between 9 p.m. and 5:59 a.m. triples the risk of a fatal crash for 16-year-old drivers, a 2003 IIHS report showed. Being on the road after dark increases the risks for all teen drivers because, frankly, it's just harder to drive at night and teens aren't very experienced. Driver fatigue was also listed as contributing to the problem. Teens are also more likely to drive aimlessly at night, which tends to be a higher-risk behavior. And, of course, the chance of alcohol being involved goes way up when the sun goes down.

Driving With Teen Passengers
When a teenage driver has a teen passenger in the car, the risk of a fatal crash doubles, says the IIHS. With three or more passengers, that teen driver's risk of a fatal crash is three times higher than if he or she is driving alone. This is partly because of the distraction passengers create. But researchers also believe drivers are more inclined to speed and do other risky things because others in the car egg them on or they want to show off. More than half of all deaths in crashes of 16- and 17-year-old drivers occur when passengers younger than 20 are in the car with no adults present.

Get It in Writing
By now we hope you're convinced how important it is to enforce tough teen-driving restrictions in your house — regardless of how much your state's law may be lagging behind the research. But short of an in-car camera — which we'll discuss in a future installment — how can you make sure your teen abides by your law? One of the best ways is to draw up a clear contract that spells out the details of your house's graduated licensing law and some very specific consequences if it is violated. The AAA has a very comprehensive teen driver contract free for download. By having both parents and your child sign it, you'll drive home the point that teen driving is a privilege, not a right — one that needs to be earned through responsible behavior.

For more details on the risks and reasons for the teen licensing laws, see Graduated Licensing: A Blueprint for North America from the IIHS and the Traffic Injury Research Foundation.

Below are links to all of the installments in this series.

Jayne O'Donnell is an auto writer at USA Today and specializes in car safety.