Children's Hospital Colorado

4 Things to Know Before Giving Your Kids the Car Keys

A teenage girl with long blonde hair sits at the wheel of a car.

As any parent of a new (or soon-to-be-new) teenage driver knows, giving your kids the car keys for the first time is a nerve-wracking experience. That’s because for most of us, the dangers of driving are no secret.

“People just accept that car crashes happen,” says Susan Goldenstein, Manager, Prevention Education and Outreach at the Child Health Advocacy Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “They think it’s inevitable or random – like a cancer.”

Parents’ anxiety about their teens driving stems from a belief that there’s nothing they can do to prevent accidents. Conversely, kids often believe they’re immune to accidents.

In her outreach role working with area schools, Goldenstein witnessed this phenomenon at Chaparral High School, where two years ago a student died when she fell asleep at the wheel – a consequence of inexperience. While students mourned the loss, they also felt distanced from the event.

“Teens live in a world of invincibility,” Goldenstein says. “They think it can’t happen to them.”

Yet, car crashes remain the number one cause of death among the teens.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

By paying attention to four things, Goldenstein believes parents can influence their children – and themselves – to be safer drivers.

  1. Parents are the biggest key to kids’ success behind the wheel. When it comes to dangerous driving behavior, parents are “the worst offenders,” Goldenstein says. Kids are most likely to do in the car what they’ve witnessed their parents do. If you text and drive, they’re more likely to text and drive; if you speed, they’re more likely to speed. In fact, the issue is so prevalent that a campaign is being developed around teens educating their parents about good driving. Set a good example for your kids from the moment they begin riding in the car with you, and you can rest a little easier when they are on the road without you. Haven’t been driving safe all these years? Make a commitment to change, and talk to your kids about it.
  2. Texting isn’t the only form of distraction. “Kids get the message about texting and driving,” says Goldenstein (though it is an omnipresent safety risk). More dangerous, she says, is the number of peers in the car while the teen is driving. Rowdy passengers who are singing or goofing off are a cognitive distraction to the driver. Inexperienced drivers do not know how to combat these distractions, so they are the most at risk for crashing. In fact, the Colorado Graduated Licensing Law was enacted in response to a car crash in 1999, where four teens died in a car with an inexperienced driver. Other distractions for both teens and adults include any interaction with a phone, eating, playing with the radio and engaging with a car’s navigation system – among many others. If a driver must engage in one of these distractions, simply, “pull over to the side of the road and resolve,” Goldenstein advises. “We think we can multitask, but we can’t.”
  3. Driving high is a real impairment. “The perception is that it’s no big deal,” Goldenstein says of driving under the influence of marijuana. “But it’s still impairment. It’s a delayed response.” She says that Coloradoans don’t consider it in the same category as drunk driving. While there still isn’t good data on driving while high, Goldenstein expects a change in the near future in the way this impaired driving problem is addressed.
  4. Colorado’s Graduated Licensing Law really works. Since Colorado enacted a graduated licensing law in 1999, teen car crashes declined dramatically. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, “Since its inception, traffic-related fatalities for teen drivers has decreased by 50%!” The law focuses on helping teens gain more experience on the road while keeping the number of kids in the car to a minimum – with strict consequences. If they get caught violating the law, they lose their license. Since the number of people in the car can predict a teen’s chances of crashing, help enforce this law at home to keep your kids safer. Parents might even consider creating their own safe driving contract with their teen, with consequences if they break it.

Above all, says Goldenstein, the number one takeaway is for parents to commit to not drive distracted.

Children’s Colorado currently has a grant from the Colorado Department of Transportation to conduct teen driving outreach in Denver-area high schools. If you are interested in bringing this programming to your high school, call 720-777-4807.

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