Car crashes are the No. 1 killer of teens. In fact, the crash rate per mile driven for 16- to 19-year-olds is nearly three times the rate for drivers age 20 and older, and the risk is highest at age 16 and 17, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

To help address this problem and highlight the continued challenges, Oct. 15 to 21 has been designated Teen Driver Safety Week.

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 (or GDLs) in most states have helped to 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 important driving experience while remaining as safe as possible.

Lead by Example

Despite the perception that our teenagers and young drivers profess to know everything, they’re still watching and learning from our own behavior. 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 the quiet of the car a tempting time to make or answer calls. Avoid the 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 nearly 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 usually would may prove beneficial to both of you.
  • Don’t drink and drive: Be especially aware of the message you're sending your teen when you’re out after having a glass of wine or two at a dinner party. Stress the importance of a designated driver, and even let him or her listen in on those 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 of violating them) makes it clear what the expectations are. Sample contracts can be found on many websites including the one from AAA (pdf) and some insurance companies. (Here's an example from Liberty Mutual.) 

Carefully Consider the Car They're Driving

One of the best ways to keep young drivers safe is to carefully think about the car they’re driving. Our lists of recommended cars for teen drivers (both new and used) are based on a philosophy of helping them avoid a crash. The cars have proved to be good, 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 not so slow that young drivers won't be confident when merging or going 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.


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 should something go wrong
  • Confirm that they feel rested and alert. (Fatigue can be of particular concern for teenagers.)

If they can't give you a clear answer to those items, perhaps 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 program restrictions for your young driver expire, your job in making him or her a better and safer driver isn't done. Continue to monitor what your child does, and be very conscious of your own driving behavior as well.

Teen Driving & The Best Cars for New Drivers