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Personal Safety for Teen Drivers

(updated January 15th, 2015)

Your teenager passed the driver's test with flying colors. You've done enough supervision to know that there is a safe and sensible driver at the wheel. But now, as your teen is soloing, you're grappling with a new worry: Did you cover personal safety issues that come up when a teenager drives alone? Resist the urge to dive in headfirst. Teens are bombarded with rules and advice from every direction. While you may be eager to pass along your warnings, it's important to consider your delivery. First, don't discuss everything at once.

"You may be tempted to, but a long lecture isn't going to help," says Christine L. Schelhas-Miller, a faculty member in Human Development at Cornell's College of Human Ecology. "Bring it up in small sound bites."

For the best impact, match brief conversations with real-life scenarios. Delivering your cautionary advice about hitchhikers at home in your living room may not spark a teen driver's interest. But if you wait until you pass a hitchhiker on a deserted highway, your words may hit home.

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If you don't typically encounter a particular situation, such as carjacking, discuss stories on the news or talk about a hypothetical situation.

Another way to improve their interest: Let your teenager get a taste of the experience first. If your daughter is brimming with enthusiasm about driving solo to the mall on Friday night, lengthy instructions about parking lot safety may be unwelcome.

"Instead, give her a quick tip, like reminding her to have her keys in hand. Then, ask her after the fact. She may admit she felt kind of creepy walking across the parking lot in the dark, and wants to hear your advice," says Schelhas-Miller.

Too many warnings may also inhibit conversation, she warns. Teens "may not want to tell you how they really felt, admitting you were right."

Ready to talk to your teen? Here are six issues your new driver should know how to deal with.

Be aware of potential carjacking situations: Potential carjackers look for distracted targets to overtake, such as a teen fiddling with the radio at a red light. Driving with the doors locked and windows rolled up is common-sense advice. But also make sure your teen knows the best way to stop in traffic.

"Leave enough room between you and the vehicle in front of you, so you can pull around them if needed. You should be able to see the ground between your vehicle and the one in front of you," shares Mike Austin, a retired police officer and owner of Never Surrender Self Defense in greater Philadelphia.

Carjackers will also strike by luring a driver out of their car: They'll bump a car from behind, or stage an accident. Assure your teen that a bumped fender is a minor problem. If this occurs in a questionable area, or if the teen feels uneasy, it's best to drive to a populated parking lot before pulling over. A person of good intentions will follow, while a carjacker is likely to drive off. Once in a secure area, if the teen driver is still uneasy, it's best to call the police and wait for their arrival.

Back away from possible road rage: The cautious habits of a new driver may inadvertently annoy others, who may yell, tailgate or act in a threatening manner. Aside from causing a dangerous distraction, these encounters can quickly escalate.

The best reaction is to ignore the heated driver and seek distance, says James Solomon, director of training for defensive driving at the National Safety Council in Itasca, Illinois.

"Pull over when it's safe to do so, and wait for the offender to get a good distance ahead of you," he says. "Don't pull out as soon as they pass you; they're likely to jam on their brakes once they get in front of you."

Set an example for your teen by remaining calm and patient when you're at the wheel, and dismiss irate drivers with minimal reaction.

Stay calm and in public if you're being followed: When a teen (or anyone, really) is driving alone, particularly at night, it's easy to be spooked. Be sure your teen knows the standard advice for determining if they're being followed: Make a series of turns in the same direction, resulting in driving in a loop. If the person in the following car makes all the same turns, be wary.

"Never try to speed away or try to out-maneuver the vehicle," says Austin. "As soon as safely possible, call 911 and tell them what direction you are traveling."

If possible, your teen should find a lit, populated place to pull over and wait for police.

"Maintain an exit route both in front of and behind your vehicle," reminds Austin. If there's no place to pull over, the teen driver should stay on main roads until help arrives. Turning on the hazard lights or beeping will attract attention.

"If needed, repeatedly drive around the same block. Do not drive to your house," Austin advises.

React cautiously to what appears to be an unmarked police car: Any car can signal or flash lights, motioning for another driver to pull over. While rare, police impersonations do happen, so your teen should proceed with caution in response to an unmarked car. At the same time, they need to acknowledge the vehicle as possibly legitimate.

"Put on your hazard lights and continue driving," Solomon recommends. "This indicates that you know they are there, if they really are a cop. But if they aren't, this generates unwanted attention."

The best place to pull over is always a lit, populated area, where the teen driver should remain locked in the car. A call to the local police will confirm if an unmarked officer is patrolling the vicinity.

Don't feel obligated to your peers: A teen with a car attracts attention. Classmates your teenager barely knows will cozy up to secure a ride. It can be hard for young people to turn down their peers.

The message to deliver is that any unknown person is unwelcome in the car, even another teen. And in most areas, a restricted driver license prohibits the teen driver from transporting non-family members.

Since perception is of primary concern to this age group, help your son or daughter formulate some responses to draw upon: "Sorry, I'm going straight to soccer." Or "My grandmother is waiting for a ride." Or "My dad needs the car." These answers give kids an easy out.

Be on the offense in dark parking lots: Teens don't always plan ahead, and often park their car in daylight but return after dark.

"Before you park, think about how long you'll be and what kind of neighborhood you're in," Solomon says.

Tell the teen drivers that if they'll be returning after dusk, they should park under a street light. Walking back to the car with keys in hand not only prevents fumbling around for them, but gives them something to strike with if the need arises. Also, remind them to remain alert.

"This isn't a time to be on the phone or texting," says Solomon.

Don't sympathize with a hitchhiker: An altruistic attitude is common among young people, but it can be dangerous, particularly if they're thinking of offering a ride to a hitchhiker.

"Ask yourself why that person is on the side of the road," Solomon suggests. "Do they have a mental illness? Did they escape from jail? Are they a drug addict, looking to steal your car for money?"

Point out that although the hitcher appears harmless, and maybe even vulnerable, with a pet or child in tow, the reality might be quite different. "Once a stranger is inside your car, it's no longer a safe place," says Solomon.

Teens should know that any time they're concerned about someone's safety, hitchhiker or otherwise, the best way to help is to notify the police.

Balancing Independence With Caution
Parenting is a careful balance of fostering independence, yet protecting your children. By recognizing what your teen needs to know and finding a good way to deliver it, you'll raise a young adult who's able to make smart decisions.