Two teenage girls sit in the front seat of a car, laughing

The dreaded day has finally arrived. Your teenager has a learner’s permit, and you have a whole new set of worries. How can you keep your teen safe once they get behind the steering wheel? Foremost among the rules and guidelines you set for your teen is to avoid distracted driving. 

Distracted driving is anything that takes attention away from concentrating on driving. It goes beyond texting and talking on a cell phone. Many teenagers eat, drink, apply makeup, look at their GPS, chat with other friends in the car, and search for music on the radio or other electronic device. Any distraction is dangerous and taking eyes off of the road even for a few seconds can result in a serious, or even fatal, car accident. 

Common Characteristics of Teen Vehicle Crashes

Most vehicle crashes involving teens are linked to 1 or more of the following risk factors: 

  • Distractions such as food, music, cell phones, GPS devices
  • Driver error
  • Speeding
  • Having 3 or more passengers
  • Drinking alcohol before driving
  • Driving at night

Fatal crashes involving teens usually are related to 1 or more of the factors above, as well as not wearing seatbelts. With electronic devices and other distractions becoming more prevalent, it is easy for teens’ attention to be diverted away from the road. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), “Teens' inexperience behind the wheel makes them more susceptible to distraction behind the wheel. 1 in 3 teens who text say they have done so while driving.” 1

Distracted Driving

Research shows that dialing a phone number while behind the wheel increases the likelihood of a crash by 6 times and is 23 times higher when driving and texting. The NHTSA explains that, “Talking or texting on the phone takes your teen's focus off the task of driving, and significantly reduces their ability to react to a roadway hazard, incident, or inclement weather.” 

In fact, in a recent study of teen drivers in 35 states, researchers found that more than 1/3 said that they had texted while driving at least once in the month before the survey. In 34 of those 35 states, text messaging by drivers under the age of 21 is illegal.2 Taking eyes off of the road for just 5 seconds is the equivalent of driving the length of a football field with eyes closed.1

What You Can Do to Help Keep Your Teen Safe

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recommends the following tips to help prevent distracted driving and to keep your teen safe on the road:3 

  1. Consider Installing a Monitoring System

Advanced technology now allows parents to have eyes and ears inside the car even when they are not in the vehicle. These devices can alert parents when their teen exceeds a speed limit or leaves a preset geographic boundary. Cars can be located on a GPS map and many allow the parent to see a summary of their child’s driving habits. While some teens may consider such technology to be overprotective, the bottom line is that you are the parent and are responsible for ensuring both your child’s safety and the safety of others on the road. 

  1. Do Not Count on Driver Education and Training Alone

Driver education and training is important, but graduating from a course does not mean that your teen is now a safe driver. Teen crashes often are related to a teen’s attitude and their decision-making skills. Teens tend to be more influenced by peer pressure and rebellion than advice from adults. Seeing themselves as immune to harm, they may speed, fail to use seatbelts, and be easily distracted in the car, regardless of their training. Continue to discuss these issues with your teen driver and warn them of the very real risks of poor decision making behind the wheel. 

  1. Plan Practice Sessions

Actively help your teen learn to drive by planning driving sessions for at least 6 months. Start slowly, helping your teen to master driving in a variety of settings. Point out safety rules, signs, and potential hazards on the road. Emphasize the importance of paying attention at all times. You should help your teen work up to driving in heavy traffic, on the freeway, and in the evening. Supervised sessions should continue even after your teen gets their license. 

According to Ruth Shults, a former senior epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "Risky driving behavior is known to be much less common with an adult in the car. The association between age and texting while driving highlights the need for parents to pay attention to their child's texting while driving throughout the teen years -- not just when their children are learning to drive.”2 

  1. Do Not Let Your Teen Drive Late at Night

Teens only do about 20% of their driving at night, but 50% of all teenage accidents happen at night. Fatal crashes involving teens tend to occur between 9 pm and midnight because: 

  • Driving at night requires more skill than driving during the day.
  • Late night outings tend to be recreational, leading to more distractions and risk-taking. 

You may want to restrict your teen to daytime driving until their skills improve and consider setting restrictions based on weather conditions like heavy rain, snow, or ice. Make sure your teen knows that safety always comes first, even if their curfew is compromised because they pulled over to wait out bad weather. 

  1. Restrict the Number of Passengers in Your Teen’s Car

Teens are more easily distracted and susceptible to peer pressure when there are more than 2 passengers in the car (something that greatly increases the risk of having a crash). Many states have graduated licensing rules that restrict night driving and prohibit teens from driving with anyone other than family members. Enforce your own rules on these matters even if your state has not made them a law. 

  1. Speeding

Talk to your teen about the serious consequences of speeding, including deadly crashes, costly tickets, and even revoked drivers' licenses. You may choose to make your teen responsible for the cost of any speeding tickets they receive, as well as increases in your insurance rates. Remember that you are a role model for your teenager, so make sure that you obey all speed limits when you are driving. 

  1. Choose a Safe Vehicle for Your Teen

Think about what vehicle would provide the most protection for your teen. Cars that are sporty or have performance images are likely to encourage speeding. Small cars may not offer as much protection as larger cars. Choose a vehicle that has the latest safety technology, such as side airbags and electronic stability control. 

  1. Insist That Your Teen Wear a Seatbelt

Consistent seatbelt use among teens is low. Every time your teen leaves the house in a vehicle, insist that they wear a seatbelt. 

  1. Talk to Your Teen About Drinking, Drug Use, and Driving

Make it clear to your teen that drinking or drug use of any kind is not only illegal, but is catastrophically dangerous to drive under their influence. Stress that even small amounts of alcohol or drugs can impair driving, even if they seem competent to drive. Keep communications lines open. Tell your teen that they can call you, without consequence, for a ride when they or their driver has been drinking or taking drugs. 

  1. Set a Good Example

If you personally text, make phone calls, speed, tailgate, or have other reckless driving habits, your teen is likely to imitate these habits. Set a good example of how a responsible driver acts. 

By taking an active role in teaching the right behavior while driving, you can decrease your teen's chance of being a distracted driver. You can find many parent-teen driving contracts online, and the organization Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) has some good resources for being a responsible teenage driver.