Getting licensed to drive is an important rite of passage for most teens, and many view driving as the key to their independence. But it’s also the most dangerous activity they’ll do.
Motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 cause of accidental death for teens. Every year, teen drivers are involved in 900,000 crashes, and more than 2,500 teens died in motor vehicle accidents in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
With such high stakes, it’s critical to understand the risks that teen drivers face on the road and how to reduce them.
How to Earn Your Driver’s License
Fortunately, there are some safeguards built into the driver licensing process. All 50 states and the District of Columbia require new drivers to go through a three-step process to obtain their license. This process — which is known as Graduated Driver Licensing — requires teen drivers to gradually gain experience and reach certain milestones before being allowed full driving privileges.
Though the specific requirements and timelines vary state by state, broadly speaking, the three stages include:
- Stage 1 (Learner’s Permit)
- This permit allows a new driver to drive if they are accompanied by a parent, legal guardian or driving instructor. Different states have different requirements for who may accompany the learner, and age requirements differ. Depending on the state, a teen may be eligible to get their learner’s permit at the age of 14, 15 or 16.
- Stage 2 (Intermediate License)
- After achieving a certain set of requirements — which usually includes 40 to 50 hours of supervised driving — the student driver is eligible for an intermediate or provisional license. An intermediate license may come with certain restrictions, such as a prohibition on driving during certain night hours or a limit on how many passengers they may carry in the vehicle.
- Stage 3 (Unrestricted License)
- The driver has met all the requirements of state law for a standard driver’s license and can now drive solo.
Most states also require you to pass a written test, a vision test and a road test. You can read more about the specific requirements in your state on AAA’s Graduated Driver’s Licensing page. The process may be different if you are a teen getting licensed to drive, versus an adult getting your first license.
Some states may also have their own specific requirements for young drivers. New Jersey, for instance, requires drivers under the age of 21 who have a learner’s permit or probational license to display a red decal on their license plate identifying them as a new driver. Not displaying the sticker is punishable by a $100 fine.
Understanding the Risks
Understanding the top hazards associated with teen driving can help you take important precautions behind the wheel.
Inexperience is one of the key factors that put teens at a greater risk of a motor vehicle accident. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teens are less likely to recognize potentially hazardous situations on the road and are more likely to make critical decision errors than adult drivers.
Critical errors account for three-quarters of all serious crashes involving teen drivers. According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, the most common critical driving errors made by teens include: traveling too fast for the road conditions, not scanning the roadway to anticipate hazards and becoming distracted while driving.
Other factors that can increase a teen’s risk of dying in a motor vehicle crash include:
- Reckless driving and speeding
- Failing to keep enough distance between their vehicle and the vehicle in front of them
- Driving at night and driving on the weekend
- Failing to wear a seatbelt
- Driving under the influence of alcohol
- Driving with other teens
- Drowsy driving or fatigue
Male teen drivers also get in more accidents than female teens. In fact, the fatality rate for male drivers in the 16-to-19 age range is twice that of female drivers, according to the CDC.
Teen Brain Differences
Research suggests that part of the problem may have to do with how teen brains work. Driving is a complex task that requires an individual to simultaneously focus on the road, the skills of driving and their destination — all while filtering out distractions and adapting to ever-changing conditions.
But those types of complex tasks (also known as executive functions) are handled by the frontal lobe of the brain, which doesn’t fully develop until early adulthood. Low executive function levels in teens are what also account for the risk-taking and impulsivity that’s more common among teenagers.
A 2017 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded that driver training that targets a teen’s executive functioning capabilities could potentially reduce the high number of teen crashes. The authors suggested that video games, driver simulation training and other technology may help teens learn to drive better and overcome their deficits.
Safe Driving Tips for First-Time Drivers
Getting lots of driving practice is the key to good driving, but it’s essential that teens follow several rules every time they get in the car.
In particular, new drivers should remember to:
- Always buckle up
- Never drink and drive
- Put down the phone
- Obey the speed limit
- Limit the number of passengers
Distracted driving is a danger for all drivers, not just teens. But developing good habits now can make a lifelong difference. Don’t talk on the phone, read or send texts, or scan social media while driving.
Texting while driving increases a teen’s risk of crashing by 23 times, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and dialing a number increases the risk by six times. Just a few seconds of inattention can mean the difference between life and death.
Many people assume that talking on the phone with a hands-free device is just fine, but that’s not the case. The act of carrying on a conversation also diverts your attention from the task of driving and can have disastrous consequences.
Phones aren’t the only danger. Fiddling with the radio, eating, looking at yourself in the mirror or applying makeup are also hazardous. A good rule of thumb is to focus just on your driving, and nothing else.
Passengers can be just as distracting as devices and increase the risk of a deadly crash. The more passengers you have in the vehicle, the greater the risk, but having even one teen passenger can increase a young person’s crash risk by 44 percent, according to the National Safety Council.
The safety group suggests prohibiting teens from allowing their peers to ride with them for at least six months after they get their driver’s license, or better yet, one year. And brothers and sisters can be just as distracting as peers since they know how to get under their sibling’s skin.
Avoid Night Driving
Decreased visibility, driver fatigue and drunk drivers all make it riskier to drive at night. Sixteen and 17-year-olds are three times more likely to be killed in a car crash after dark, according to the National Safety Council.
While most states prohibit nighttime driving by teens, many curfews don’t kick in until 11 p.m. or later — and nearly 20 percent of fatal crashes involving a teen driver happen between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., according to the National Safety Council. Safety advocates think states should tighten their restrictions on nighttime driving to include earlier hours, but until they do that, parents should lay down the law.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends requiring your teen to return home by sundown right after they get their license. You can gradually increase their night driving hours as they gain more experience on the road, and don’t hesitate to accompany them on drives after sunset. This will help them get the experience they need.
Scan the Road
An important skill for all new drivers is road scanning. Scanning involves looking down the road ahead of your vehicle and anticipating potential hazards or trouble. This prepares you to react in time. If you’re driving on the highway, for instance, and see a lot of brake lights ahead of you, you can prepare to break now.
Good scanning techniques include occasional glances in your rearview and sideview mirrors to keep an eye on vehicles in adjacent lanes and behind you. And it’s extremely important to scan the road and know where other drivers are when you’re attempting to change lanes, slow down, back up or climb a hill. Having well developed scanning skills can buy you vital response time while driving.
Don’t Drive Impaired
It’s illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to drink, but that doesn’t always stop teens from drinking or from making bad choices when they drink. Approximately one in every 10 teens drinks and drives and close to 1 million high schoolers consumed alcohol and got behind the wheel in 2011, according to the CDC.
The good news is that those numbers are substantially lower than they were 10 and 20 years ago, but the bad news is teens are still getting killed because of drinking and driving.
Teens sometimes view themselves as invincible, and they may not think about all the consequences of drinking and driving. That’s why it’s important for them to understand the ramifications of drinking and driving. In addition to risking their lives and the lives of others, teens need to understand they can be arrested for driving under the influence.
Depending on the state, underage DUIs can result in the impoundment of your vehicle, the suspension of your driver’s license, possible jail times, fines and other penalties. Teens should also be aware that it’s not just alcohol that can get you in trouble. Driving under the influence of any mind-altering substance is a crime.
Car Maintenance Checklist
New drivers don’t have to be car mechanics, but they should become familiar with the basics of car maintenance. Properly maintaining your car can help prevent unexpected breakdowns and incidents on the road and is important for vehicle safety.
Every teen should to know:
- When to Change the Oil: Periodic oil changes are crucial to keep your car in good working order. Conservative estimates recommend changing your oil every 3,000 miles, but newer vehicles are made to last anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 miles in between changes. The best bet is to check your owner’s manual or talk to your dealership and follow their instructions.
- What Various Warning Lights Mean: Car warning lights can vary depending on the make and model of your car, but some that you should familiarize yourself with include: the “check engine” light, which usually indicates a malfunction; the engine temperature light, which can signal you if your engine is overheating; the oil light, which can indicate that your oil is low; and the tire pressure (TPMS) light, which alerts you when your tire pressure is low. Check your car manual to learn what specific lights on your dashboard are telling you.
- How to Add Wiper Fluid: Driving with a dirty windshield isn’t safe and you should always make sure you have enough windshield washer fluid. The fluid reservoir is under your hood and marked by a little windshield wiper symbol. You can check out Ford Motor Company’s website for step-by-step instructions.
- When to Replace Wiper Blades: According to Meineke Car Care Centers, wiper blades typically last two to three years, but they can wear out sooner — particularly if you drive in severe weather. If your wipers are leaving streaks or smears, it’s time to get new ones.
- How to Test Your Lights: Your taillights, headlights, brake lights, indicators and other lights are crucial safety items, so it’s important to make sure they’re always in working order. Ask a friend to help you out by activating the lights inside the car, while you check outside to make sure everything is functioning properly. If any lights are out, be sure to replace them as soon as possible — and be aware you may be issued a traffic ticket if your lights aren’t working properly.
- How to Know If Your Brakes are Bad: Fortunately, your brakes will usually give some clear warning signs when they’re wearing out. Worn out brake pads will often make a squealing or screeching noise when you brake. You can also do a visual check of your brakes by looking through the wheel spokes. According to Car and Driver magazine, you should be able to see at least a quarter inch of material on the brake pads. If there’s less, it’s time to visit a mechanic. Other signs of trouble can include: brakes that aren’t as responsive as they used to be, the brake pedal feels mushy instead of firm, the car is pulling to the side when braking, or you feel a vibration when braking.
- How to Check Tire Pressure: Underinflated or dangerously worn tires can increase the risks of a crash, but both are easy to check. Checking your tire pressure is easy with an electronic tire gauge and this primer from Bridgestone will walk you through the process.
- How to Check Tire Tread: Checking your tire tread is easy with the penny test. All you need to do is place a penny in the tire’s tread grooves, with the top of Abraham Lincoln’s head closest to the tire. If the tread only meets the top of Lincoln’s hair, or doesn’t touch his hair, it’s time for new tires. If part of Lincoln’s head is covered by tread, your tires are still in good condition.
- When to Get Your Battery Checked: Your battery is a critical electrical component of your car and AAA recommends that you should get your car battery tested annually.
Any teen driving more than 50 miles from home should consider having an emergency roadside assistance plan. Many insurance policies include this service. If not, you may want to consider signing up for AAA, or a similar plan. Parents who are AAA members can get free AAA memberships for their teens when they get their learner’s permit.
How Parents Can Help
As a parent, there’s a lot you can do to help your teen become a good driver. One of the most important steps is making sure your teen has plenty of supervised practice. The National Safety Council recommends spending at least 30 minutes a week driving with your teen to help familiarize them with the road and traffic safety rules.
Early on, you’ll want to limit your teen to driving on familiar roads under favorable conditions. But as their confidence and ability increases, you should allow them to drive in congested traffic, at highway speeds and after dark.
They also need to practice driving in adverse conditions, including glaring sun, rain, snow, ice and wind. This will help them learn how to handle the vehicle in those situations. Remember, at the end of the day, you want a confident teen driver, not an inexperienced one.
While some parents relish teaching their kids to drive, it’s not for everyone. If the thought of riding shotgun with your son or daughter gives you or your child sweaty palms and heart palpitations, you might want to send them to a driving school instead.
Hiring a neutral third party may help to avoid a lot of frustration and hurt feelings — and it could save you money. Some insurance companies offer discounts for teen drivers who choose to take driver’s education or defensive driving classes.
There are other potential benefits as well. Researchers from the Nebraska Prevention Center for Alcohol and Drug Abuse at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that teens who take driver’s education are less likely to get a traffic ticket or die in a car crash or be involved in a car crash at all.
It’s also important to set a good example for your teen. This means always wearing your seatbelt, not speeding and practicing defensive driving techniques. Never drink and drive, don’t use a cell phone while driving, and never run red lights.
Many health and safety advocates recommend drawing up a driving contract with your teen that outlines your expectations of them and consequences if they don’t follow the agreement. The CDC has a sample contract that you can download and go over with your son or daughter before you hand them the keys.
Helpful Resources for Teen Drivers
If you’re a new driver, or the parent of a new driver, there are several useful online resources that can help answer some of the important questions you may have.
Safe Vehicles for Teens
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has developed a useful list of safe vehicles for teen drivers. The list includes the “good” and “best” automobile choices based on safety ratings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It includes the car make and model, the model years and typical prices for those vehicles. The page also includes tips on car features you should look for and avoid.
The National Safety Council
The National Safety Council’s DriveitHome website providers a number of helpful resources for teens and parents of teens to reduce crash risks. The site provides pointers for parents, a teen driving contract called the “New Driver Deal,” and other resources.
AAA’s comprehensive Keys2Drive teen driver safety guide provides detailed advice about every step of teen driving from the driver’s education process to licensing and beyond. The site also provides a sample parent-teen agreement and information about AAA’s free teen membership program.
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