How can I help my teen become a better driver?

Today’s guest blogger is Flaura Winston, MD, PhD, scientific director of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention, and a nationally-recognized expert on teen driving. She is one of the founders of the congressionally-sanctioned National Teen Driver Safety Week during the third week of October -- October 20-26 this year.

Motor vehicle crashes with teens behind the wheel are the leading cause of death in teens. Many parents may not realize that one of the most important things they can do to assure that their teen reaches adulthood is to help their teens navigate their way to safe, independent driving.  To do this, parents need the facts.  Did you know that parents may misinterpret their teen’s driving mistakes as intentional risk-taking or lack of attention to detail?

A recent Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia study found that 75 percent of serious teen crashes were due to a critical teen driver error, with three common errors accounting for nearly half of all serious crashes: driving too fast for road conditions, being distracted, and failing to detect a hazard. The study  found that other primary factors were rare: environmental conditions, such as poor weather, vehicle malfunction, aggressive driving, or physical impairments such as drowsy driving.

How can we help our teens become better drivers? One way is to raise awareness in our communities through National Teen Driver Safety Week this week. This year's theme is “It Takes Two: Shared Expectations for Teens and Parents for Driving.”

Whether a teen is practicing or driving alone, a teen and a parent (or other trusted adult) should work together to help the teen become a safe and skilled driver. Teens should expect their parents to model safe driving behaviors, to help navigate and offer support throughout the learning-to-drive process and then, to monitor and support driving planning and safe behavior after teens receive their license. Teens go from their lowest lifetime risk of crashing when accompanied by their parents as a learner driver and reach their highest risk immediately after licensure.  So, the learner period is a great time for families to get the process going with many hours under a wide variety of conditions – many more than the PA requirement of 65 hours.

When you hand over the keys, the transition isn’t a time to step away, but to stay engaged with your child and manage early driving privileges. Our work has shown that teens who have to share a vehicle are half as likely to crash than those who have easy access to a their own vehicle. Many teens will need more on-going support because for most, the parts of the brain that are involved with planning do not mature until the mid-20’s.

Here are some tips to help you get started: 

Provide your teen with 65+ hours of supervised driving practice. This total may seem daunting, but you can do it. To accomplish this task, keep a driving log and follow a driving lesson timeline to ensure that you give your teen lots of varied practice while learning to drive and careful monitoring for the first year after licensure.

Create the right learning environment. You and your teen need to discuss and set clear expectations for each other. This means staying calm, being respectful, and giving appropriate and timely feedback. When your teen resists certain rules put in place for safety, don't get mad. Instead, turn the conversation around. Here's how

Be sure to teach your teen critical driving skills. Help your teen develop these skills to prevent the three common errors that lead to teen crashes: speed management, recognizing and avoiding distractions, and scanning for hazards. Learn more.

Scanning and speed management are considered "higher order" skills that older drivers develop with time spent behind the wheel. Unfortunately, it is the lack of these implicit thinking skills that lead to many serious teen crashes. Research shows that most parents and teens do not sufficiently reinforce these skills during supervised driving sessions. This is not due to preference but because they just don't know how.

Make sure your teen's driver education instructor includes scanning during their lessons and teaches teens how to measure a safe following distance. Also be sure to ask for the instructoss expert advice to help reinforce effective scanning habits with your teen. Here are some guidelines to help you. 

Develop house rules for your teen's first year of independent driving. As your teen follows the rules and shows maturity, consider increasing driving privileges. For example, in the beginning, rules can include: no one else in the car while driving, low speed, daytime only and local roads. Then complexities can be added such as going to new destinations and longer trips. There should be clear expectations. Non-negotiables that do not change include: don’t drive while impaired, always wear a seat belt, and don’t drive with any distractions like a cell phone. Learn more.  

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