Teenage Drivers - Getting Control, Getting a Contract

Many parents rightly experience a strong anxiety when turning over the car keys to their new teen driver. There are a several things a parent can do to make sure that the teenage driving experience is a safe one. First, teenagers need to understand that driving is a privilege, not a right. With privileges come certain responsibilities. It is best to make those responsibilities and the consequences for not meeting them as clear as possible. One way to do that is with an actual contract between parents and teenagers built around the concept of graduated licensing and restrictions for high risk situations.

The stark reality is this: teen age drivers have the highest crash rate of any age group. Not surprisingly, 16 year old drivers are most susceptible to accidents, particularly where driver error or excessive speed is involved. Statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) zero in even further to point out that the most difficult period for young drivers is the first several months of driving.

The IIHS data also suggests a number of other characteristics involved with teen accidents. For instance:

  • Speeding - The percentages of fatal accidents involving speeding was 85% for 16 year olds and 78% for 17-19 year olds.
  • Passengers - Fatal wrecks with 3 or more passengers in the car accounted for 37% of 16 year old accidents and 34% of crashes for 17 - 19 year olds.
  • Alcohol - Always a problem and a disproportionate factor for any age group. But alcohol generally looms as a larger factor in fatal crashes with slightly older teenagers; the percentage for 16 year olds is 11%, for 17 - 19 year olds the number jumps to 24%.
  • Night Driving - The fatal crash rate for 16 year olds is about twice as high as in daytime.
  • Seat belts - 75% of the fatalities for 15 -20 year olds were not wearing seat belts.

Many states have enacted "graduated licensing". In these systems, driving is restricted during the first year or two until experience behind the wheel can be gained. Frequently, those restrictions include no night time driving and no driving on interstate or other limited access and high speed thoroughfares. Another common restriction limits the number of passengers in a vehicle unless an adult is present. Once inexperienced drivers have gained more experience, they will be better prepared for more difficult driving situations. The results, in those states and countries that have adopted graduated licensing, have been encouraging with reductions in teen crashes and fatalities.

  • Here are some other restrictions that could be removed gradually:
  • No driving on interstate highways or other limited access, high speed limit roads;
  • Avoid certain congested thoroughfares during hours of congestion (e.g., during rush hour or shopping districts during peak shopping times);
  • Streets with dangerous intersections;
  • Minimize distractions while experience is gained by delaying installation of sound systems or forbidding the use of cell phones while driving;
  • Include requirement for a certain number of hours of supervised driving in restricted scenarios before lifting those restrictions;
  • Zero tolerance for any traffic violations, including drinking in vehicles;
  • Tie other desirable behaviors to driving privileges. For instance, driving privileges can be suspended or restricted unless a certain grade point average is maintained.
  • Restrict vehicles driven to those that are safer and less likely to tempt reckless driving behavior. Avoid high performance sports cars or high center of gravity vehicles (prone to roll-over; these include many SUVs) and look for vehicles with safety features like passive restraints, high mount brake lights. Make sure older vehicles are inspected for safety and reliability.

Penalties should be scaled according to the seriousness of a contract violation. For very serious acts, revocation of driving privileges may be called for. For less serious violations the contract could call for additional restrictions such as permission to drive to and from school or work, only. Another consequence could be a requiring the teenager to pay some or all, of their insurance premium. In fact, you may want to schedule a meeting with your insurance agent to go over the factors that affect cost and availability of insurance before turning over the keys for the first time.

Be sure your contract plans for extraordinary circumstances. For instance, what to do if your teen is unfit to drive; what to do if your teen is a passenger in a vehicle whose driver is unfit to drive. Crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers so you need to take an active role in protecting your child even in situations where they may not be driving.

Here is a sample contract (PDF) to get you started. You can customize it to fit your situation. Included in the contract is a simple point system for scoring contract violations.

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