Parents often wrestle with how to balance child safety and independence. On playgrounds, at schools, and in the office, they often ask me questions that start with, “At what age can I let my child go alone to…” or “My child wants to (fill in the blank) with his friends; is it ok?”
On most matters, there are no hard-and- fast rules; decisions are left largely to parent discretion. Families need to make good choices based on the activity, the child (his abilities, maturity, impulse control), his friends, and his surroundings. But there is one clear rule: Safety trumps independence on matters that put a child at risk for permanent disability or death, and motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of child and adolescent death. So, for traffic safety decisions, it is a parent’s sole responsibility. End of discussion. When it comes to auto safety, there is no such thing as parents being overprotective.
When children are young, you can get their opinion about comfort and colors of child safety seats and helmets and discuss why you are transitioning them from a forward-facing seat to a booster or from a booster to an adult seat belt. When they get older, you can hear their decision-making about where they want to go, with whom they will be going, and when they will be back. If the decision is safe and sound, you can go with it. Teen permit holders can help choose routes to take and skills to develop for practice sessions, but it’s important to remain firm about not driving their friends around when newly licensed. The aim of this discussion should be for them to understand why this decision is non-negotiable (for their safety) and not to debate why the rule is in place.
Although brains continue to evolve over a lifetime, the most intense development of our children’s brains occurs during childhood and early adulthood. Of most importance regarding safety, the prefrontal cortex, also known as the “CEO” or “command center” of the brain, is the last portion to develop and does not fully mature until the mid-20’s. That’s why some say you need to “share your brain” to keep them safe. Sure you should give them more autonomy as they grow, taking into account their preferences. But key risky decisions are ultimately yours. It’s not about control; it’s about safety.
Non-negotiable Safety Tips for Parents
- Choose the correct child restraint system for age and size and use it properly in the rear seat. It is not enough to buy the right car seat or booster seat. You must know how to attach it to the fixed latches in the car and how to safely strap in your child. Click here for the latest guidelines. All occupants should be restrained on all trips all the time.
- Insist on bike helmets. Helmet use has been estimated to reduce head injury risk by 85 percent in motor vehicle crashes involving bicyclists. Helmets are also not just for youngsters. According to Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 83 percent of bicycle deaths were to those aged 20 and older. Remind your young adult to always wear a helmet when bicycling.
- Discuss how to be a safe pedestrian. According to FARS data from NHTSA, 4,743 pedestrians died in traffic crashes in 2012, a 6 percent jump from 2011. Children are at even greater risk because they may not yet understand traffic rules or risks. (Click here for tips from CHOP experts on teaching pedestrian safety to children.)
- Follow and enforce your state’s Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) provisions. GDL protects newly licensed teen drivers by keeping them out of high-risk driving situations until they have gained driving experience in lower-risk conditions. GDL also limits the number of peer passengers teens may drive, bans cell phone use while driving, and mandates 65+ hours of parent-supervised practice during the permit phase. Using these GDL guidelines, work with your teen to develop house rules for the first year of independent driving.
- When it comes to safety, lead by example. Wear a seat belt for every trip, every time, refrain from cell phone use while driving, and always follow the speed limit.
- Control the keys. Teenage drivers with "primary access" to a vehicle are more likely to use cell phones while driving and to speed than their peers who share a car with family members, according to CIRP@CHOP research. These teens are also more than twice as likely to report having been in a crash than those who share a car. When your teen has to ask you to have the car, it creates opportunities to constructively remind him to buckle up and to refrain from cell phone use while driving. It also offers your teen the opportunity to share where she’s going, who she’ll be with, and when she will return.
- Continue to supervise practice driving. For the first six to 12 months of independent driving, continue to ride along as driving supervisor. Aim for 30 minutes per week for dedicated practice in new environments or to boost skills that are still difficult for your teen to master. For my teens, it was left-hand turns, highway merging, and judging stopping distance, all common contributing factors to teen crashes. Create the right learning environment by discussing and setting clear expectations of each other.
- Be the scapegoat. Offer to help your teen out of an unsafe situation. Be the reason he says “no” or leaves a dangerous situation. Discuss what these situations might be – a party with drinking, friends planning unsafe activities, such as swimming or boating at night or while intoxicated, or accepting a ride from a newly licensed teen driver.