Car crashes are the No. 1 killer of U.S. teens. In fact, the fatal crash rate per mile driven for 16- to 17-year-olds is nearly three times the rate for drivers age 20 and older, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

To help address this problem and highlight the continued challenges, Oct. 21 to 27 has been designated Teen Driver Safety Week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA figures show that 1,908 drivers 15 to 20 years old died in motor vehicle crashes in 2016, the most recent year that data is available. This marks a 2.1 percent increase over 2015.

More on Teen Driving

Having a new driver can be one of the most nerve-racking and worrisome times for a parent, especially if you know those facts. Graduated licensing programs (GDL) in many states have helped take some of the pressure off parents.

GDL programs set strict driving rules, requiring certain levels of education, minimum hours of driving experience (some with parents along), restrictions on driving hours, and limits on the number of passengers a new driver can take along. But those restrictions eventually expire, typically around age 18 or once a young driver has had a license for a specified period of time.

There are some important steps parents can take in conjunction with their state’s GDL restrictions to help young drivers get as much good driving experience while remaining as safe as possible.

Parents Must Lead by Example

Despite the perception that our teenagers and young drivers profess to know everything, they’re still watching and learning from how their parents behave. The example you set for them behind the wheel may be the most important in terms of actually keeping them safe, more so than any other safety message you’ve given them in their entire life. So make it count. 

Whether your teen is driving, or you are, be sure to:

  • Buckle up: Despite seat-belt laws in many states, teenagers have some of the lowest rates of seat-belt use, especially when they’re passengers. Be sure you buckle up yourself and make sure they do as well.
  • Put down the phone: Adults often find that the quiet of the car is a tempting time to make or answer calls when they're driving. Avoid that temptation, not only because of the risk it presents but also because of the message it sends to your young driver. Set the example by having your teen send a text or make a call for you.
  • Slow down: Speed is a contributing factor in almost one-third of the motor-vehicle fatalities in 2016, according to recently released fatality numbers. Young drivers don’t yet have a good gauge of how fast is too fast, so driving slower than you normally would is safer for both of you.
  • Don’t drink and drive: Be especially aware of the message you're sending your teen when you’re driving after having a glass or two of wine at a dinner party. Stress the importance of designating a driver, and let your teens listen in on the discussions you have with other adults about the issue.
  • Consider your own driving contract: Writing down a set of rules—and perhaps more important, the consequences they'll face if they violate them—makes it clear what your expectations are. Sample contracts can be found on many websites, including this one from AAA (pdf) or some insurance companies. (Here's an example from Liberty Mutual.) 

Teen-Focused Safety Features

Several automakers offer models with specific features that build on the graduated licensing concept to empower parents to set certain restrictions and provide a means to monitor behavior behind the wheel.

Ford has long offered a teen-focused system, called MyKey, that offers similar restrictions, including a chime that tones every 30 seconds until the front occupants buckle up. The Ford system has a few other parent-friendly features such as blocking explicit content on satellite radio, an earlier low-fuel warning, and the ability to keep teen drivers from deactivating safety systems.

Some General Motors models have a Teen Driver mode that allows parents to program limitations, such as setting a maximum speed, and it provides a report card that indicates if safety systems were used, distance driven, and top speed. There is also a seat belt minder that mutes the audio system until the driver, and if applicable, front passenger, is buckled in.

Chevrolet has introduced a Buckle to Drive feature that adds a new level of safety intervention on the 2020 Colorado, Malibu, and Traverse. When activated, if the driver’s buckle is not fastened, the vehicle will not shift out of Park for 20 seconds, and it will issue a warning in the instrument panel: “Buckle seat belt to shift.”

Hyundai, Kia, Lexus, and Toyota offer systems that can alert the owner (in this scenario, a parent) when the car is driven too fast or out of a defined area.  

Carefully Consider the Car They're Driving

It matters what car your teen drives. Our lists of recommended cars for teen drivers (both new and used) are based on a philosophy of helping them avoid a crash. These cars have proved to be good performers, safe, and reliable.

But more than that, we narrow the list of CR recommended cars to those that aren't so fast that they invite speeding but also not so slow that young drivers won't be confident enough to merge or pull out into traffic. We select only those with good braking distances and good scores for emergency handling.

Because additional passengers pose increased risks for young drivers, our lists don't include SUVs with three rows, or minivans. According to IIHS, 55 percent of the deaths of teenage passengers in 2015 occurred in a vehicle driven by another teenager.

Teen Driving School

Want your teen to become a better driver? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Jen Stockburger explains the driving maneuvers and safety features that will help him or her do it.

Become an Air Traffic Controller

If you're the parent of a teen driver, manage your child's trips with something like an aircraft flight plan. One of the riskiest behaviors for teens is “just driving around.” It makes sense that when a teenager has a destination in mind—such as a date, sports event, or party—he or she is more likely to get there safely. In other words, purposeful driving is more likely to result in a safe outcome than joyriding.

Items to include in the flight plan are:

  • Destination
  •  Route
  • Time of day they're traveling
  • When they're expected to depart and arrive
  • What car they're driving
  • Their plan for contacting someone
  • What their contingency plan is in case something goes wrong
  • Confirm that they feel rested and alert. (Fatigue is a particular concern for teenagers.)

If they can't give you a clear answer to those questions, maybe it's not a trip they should be taking. And of course, should any of the answers change during their trip, they should contact you as the controller to revise their flight plan.

In short, even when GDL restrictions expire for your young driver, your job in making him or her a better and safer driver isn't done yet. Monitor what your child does, and remain conscious of your own driving behavior as well.

Teen Driving & the Best Cars for New Drivers