Teens are often convinced they can easily handle the wide-open road. They've seen their parents and peers take on the everyday task and may think, "How hard can it be?" But for young, inexperienced drivers, missteps are just par for the driving course.
And for those who aren't licensed yet, driving can prove deadly if they venture out on their own. A new study shows that 1 in 25 9th, 10th, and 11th graders in the United States make the dangerous decision to drive solo (without adult supervision) at least an hour each week without a driver's license.
The researchers found that teens driving without a license aren't more likely to get in accidents, in general, but say federal statistics show that they are more apt to be involved in fatal crashes.
Surveying more than 5,600 teens on their driving habits, researchers found that kids who drive without a license are also more likely to:
- drink or do drugs and drive
- not wear a seatbelt
- drive around for no reason — just for kicks
Only a little more than a quarter of the kids sitting behind a wheel without a license had taken a driver's education class. And half of the teens said Mom and Dad were helpful in teaching them how to drive — that leaves another half who didn't feel like their parents were aiding in their driving efforts.
What This Means to You
Teens often feel invincible — like accidents, especially serious or even fatal ones, happen to "someone else." When kids were adventurous, fearless tykes, learning how to ride a bike took tons of time, patience, and practice — and the same is true now, when they're learning to drive. Your teen needs you to be an even more attentive, reassuring guide.
To help get you and your driving teen going down the right track from the get-go, here are some tips:
1. Start out small and keep things low-key and stress-free. Take the car to a completely empty parking lot so your teen can practice simple skills like turning and braking, getting a feel for how the car handles, driving slowly in forward and reverse, and learning the location of some of the basic controls (like windshield wipers, defroster, and lights).
Practice one skill at a time — it can be hard for new drivers to process multiple things at once while trying to drive — it can even be a distraction. And, by all means, stay calm! As terrifying as driving with an inexperience teen driver can be, try to keep your cool. Screaming and yelling will only make an already scary, stressful experience even more filled with anxiety.
2. Work on the more involved skills on quiet back roads, where there's little traffic, after you've gone over the basics. Then you can focus on things like:
- slowing down around curves
- coming to a full stop at a stop sign
- understanding the rules of a four-way stop
- keeping a safe following distance
- making a left turn on a two-way road
- keeping a constant speed when going uphill
- recognizing and understanding street signs
- navigating around pedestrians, animals, bikers, and runners
3. Move onto bigger, busier roads and highways only once your child has mastered the basic skills. Here, you can help your teen practice:
- changing lanes
- merging into traffic
- maintaining a safe speed
- understanding the different lanes — like not going below the speed limit in the left lane
- approaching, slowing down, and stopping at traffic lights — green, yellow, and red
- making a left on a green yield
- using on and off ramps at appropriate speeds
- anticipating and watching for potential problems from other drivers (like watching for other cars coming from different directions at a stop sign or traffic light and looking out for cars that suddenly switch lanes without signaling)
4. Practice in more difficult driving conditions, like:
- dusk and dawn
- rain and snow
5. Only allow more passengers (like other family members) after your teen feels more confident and has had plenty of practice. Many states restrict the number or ages of passengers that teens can have when they first get their license. Learn the rules in your state and consider adding others based on your child's driving experience, temperament, and the driving situations likely to occur. Statistics show that kids who drive with big groups of friends are more likely to be involved in accidents.
6. Keep riding shotgun and going on practice drives together, even after your teen has a license. That way, you can make sure your child is still able to handle the responsibility and hasn't picked up any bad habits.
When it comes to driving, experience is an important teacher. The more time young drivers spend honing a variety of skills in different road and weather conditions, the more calm and confident they'll feel and the better they'll be able to react to challenging situations.
And, of course, make sure your teen sees you practicing what you preach. Studies show that teens who get in accidents are more likely to have parents with bad driving records. So be mindful of following all of the rules of the road when your kids are in tow — always using your turn signal, no tailgating, no speeding, no aggressive driving, and no road rage!
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: November 2008
Source: "Unlicensed Teenaged Drivers: Who Are They, and How Do They Behave When They Are Behind the Wheel?," Pediatrics, November 2008.