Anxiety-Easing Tips for Parents of Teen Drivers

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Connor Driving

7:05 pm

I’m home alone, working in my office, but I’m not really working. I’m going through the motions, moving boxes back and forth, opening envelopes, but it’s hard to do because I only have one hand. The other is holding my phone. My silent phone. Well, not exactly silent because I can hear it judging me.

“He wasn’t ready.”

“It’s too dark.”

“…Lots of intersections between here and there, you know.”

7:06 pm

Of course it’s not really my phone that’s judging me. I know the voice all too well. I’ve been hearing it for 16 years, and although the words may change,

“He can’t stand up yet; he’s not ready.”

“Maybe one more year with the training wheels?”

“A whole week in Arizona without you?”

in truth, it’s the same message again and again:

“You have no idea what you’re doing.”

7:07 pm

It’s been about two weeks since he received his license, and this was his second solo trip. A trip that he left on 17 minutes ago. A trip that should have taken ten minutes, max.

Right before he left, we went over the rules once again. No phone. No fiddling with music. No passengers. Text us when you get there and again before you leave.

“Seven minutes late? Even hitting all the lights red shouldn’t add that much time to the trip.”

“Are you sure he was going straight there?”

“…You have no idea what you’re doing.”

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7:11 pm

Did you forget?
Sent at 7:11 PM via Project Fi

7:13 pm

Did you forget?
Sent at 7:11 PM via Project Fi
Hello?
Sent at 7:13 PM via Project Fi

7:20 pm

The Google Voice subscriber you have called is not available. Please leave a message after the tone.
The Google Voice subscriber you have called is not available. Please leave a message after the tone.
The Google Voice subscriber you have called is not available. Please leave a message after the tone.

7:25 pm

As I’m throwing on my jacket and grabbing my keys off the table, plotting out all possible routes to the other end of town, my wife and other son walk in the door. I shove my heart back down out of my mouth so I can get the words out, and I tell her what is going on. She’s on her phone immediately, and as I’m just about to say he isn’t answering me, I hear, “Hey, [girlfriend_name], what’s [name of friend who also goes to youth group]’s phone number?”

7:26 pm

Did you forget?
Sent at 7:11 PM via Project Fi
Hello?
Sent at 7:13 PM via Project Fi
I am so sorry! I left my phone in the Jeep.
Sent at 7:26 PM via Project Fi

I’m proud to say that I held it together pretty well, although there must have been something in my tone of voice when later that night I simply said, “Unacceptable,” because based on the look in his eyes, I’m pretty sure that’s a mistake he will never make again.

The frightening truth is that for too many parents, this story does not end so well. The first six months after getting a license are the most dangerous times for new drivers, and the statistics are downright terrifying.

  • 1 in 4 crash fatalities in the United States involves a 16- to 24-year-old
  • Car crashes are the #1 killer of teenagers
  • A teenager is more than 20 times more likely to be in a crash while transitioning from supervised driving to driving alone.

In other words, that cold knot in the pit of your stomach is not only natural, it’s probably justified. Driving is an inherently dangerous activity that no kid should be taking lightly. That said, it’s also not a danger you as a parent are powerless against. Safe drivers don’t happen by accident. A great deal of the success of your driver begins with you, and much of it long before you ever start thinking about driver’s education or insurance rates.

Safe Driving Begins at Birth

You may not realize it, but your kids have been learning to drive since the day they were born. Every time you’re in the car together, they are picking up on your habits. Do you always wear your seat belt? Are you texting and driving? Do you tailgate other drivers and make rude hand gestures when they cut you off? These are all things your kids take note of as normal driving behavior. If Mom and Dad drive like this, it must be right.

"Yes, very good. Now question that other driver's parentage and show him one of your fingers."
“Yes, very good. Now question that other driver’s parentage and show him one of your fingers.”

This becomes even more important the older they get. When they become teenagers and start asking to back the car out of the driveway or let them drive in circles in the school parking lot on a Sunday afternoon, they will be paying even closer attention to you. They won’t understand that you’ve been doing this for 20 years and have developed a set of skills that allow you to operate a vehicle safely in a manner that a beginner driver cannot. All they will see is that Dad drives over the speed limit on the highway, or Mom checks Facebook at stop lights, so that must be the way it’s supposed to be done. Put down the phone and follow the rules of the road. Even better if you also talk to them about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, as well as point out when other drivers are not behaving properly. If you want to speed or text Grandma or swerve in and out of traffic, save it for when you’re alone (and preferably, when you’re not anywhere near me).

You Are Not As Good As You Think You Are

According to one study, 93% of U.S. drivers believe they are in the top 50% in driving skill and 88% believe they are in the top 50% in driving safety. It’s an easy assumption to make. Every day we encounter what appear to be a never-ending stream of bad drivers. Or so it would at first seem. In actuality, we are encountering hundreds or thousands of drivers, and only the bad ones are sticking in our memory. Similarly, you may be a safe driver 99.9% of the time, but that one time you swerved out of your lane because you were reading an important work e-mail? You are now one of the “bad drivers” that everyone around you is going to be talking about that day with their co-workers, pondering from exactly which Chuck E. Cheese you received your license.

"Give me that. Honestly, who lets a two-year-old behind the wheel. No, I got this. You can ring the bell."
“Give me that. Honestly, who lets a two-year-old behind the wheel. No, I got this. You can ring the bell.”

Even if you are the greatest driver in the world, that doesn’t make you the greatest teacher. You may have honed your driving skills to an art form, but if you can’t communicate those skills to your kids, or if your explanation is, “Well, you’ll eventually just get a feel for it,” you’re not really teaching your kids anything. This is the time to embrace that little voice inside that says, “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Thankfully, there are driver education programs pretty much everywhere. These aren’t the Driver’s Ed classes you might remember from high school, either, with Coach Myers, the shop teacher and girls basketball coach, napping in the passenger seat. Classes can range from a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars and are taught by certified instructors using curriculum designed with input from both the insurance industry and state and federal agencies. They not only teach the laws of your state, but provide vital hands-on instruction via hours of supervised driving. Many even offer specific skills training for your local environment, such as mountain driving or icy conditions.

While the cost of these programs can be significant, it’s a small price to pay for the skills your child will take with them the rest of their life. Plus, most insurers will offer discounts for successful completion of these programs, so it’s easy to offset the cost in just a few years.

When Driving, Never Forget The Most Importa…Squirrel!

The two biggest distractions for new drivers are the radio and their mobile phones. Well, I say radio, but if modern cars actually had simple radios it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. When I started driving, I had a Delco AM/FM radio with five mechanical programmable buttons on it, which was two more than were necessary as there were only three radio stations worth listening to at the time. At the most, you could be distracted by the radio for a few seconds switching among these stations. Eventually, though, I did get a cassette player, which allowed me to pay even less attention to the road as I browsed through the case of Metallica, Michael Jackson, and two dozen mix tapes recorded off the radio. Today, modern cars have touchscreen, GPS-enabled, satellite radio with Bluetooth connections to your phone. Young drivers can go an entire trip without ever once having to be distracted by all that stuff going on through the windshield. For this reason, you may want to consider a “no music” rule during the first few months.

"So help me, if she switches it over to Wiggles radio again, I'm getting out and walking."
“So help me, if she switches it over to Wiggles radio again, I’m getting out and walking.”

I find it harder to recommend a “no phone” rule, even though it is a much larger distraction, mainly because that is the sole source of GPS navigation for many kids. You should absolutely have a “no texting” rule, and I would even add a “no phone calls” rule, but there are some parents who recommend teens powering off their phones altogether, or even going so far as to lock the phone in the trunk or the console. While I can appreciate the sentiment, I find it much more distracting to be trying to read street signs, be in the correct lane, follow written directions, and still be aware of everything else going on around you. A GPS allows teens to keep their full attention on the road, even when they don’t know how to get to where they are going.

The best solution is a standalone GPS unit. The Garmin DriveSmart that my son uses ties into his phone for live traffic data while keeping his hands off via the voice controls. One of the really nice features is the driver alerts that notify him of impending speed limit changes, traffic jams, sharp curves, and school zones. It also displays the current speed limit and shows him which lanes to use when turning or taking highway exits. Another helpful feature is the points of interest and landmark guidance. “In a half mile, turn right at Tiny Little Backroad Lane” is not nearly as helpful as “In a half mile, turn right after the McDonald’s.” If your teen does use a GPS, be sure they understand the rerouting functionality and that it’s OK to miss a turn rather than trying to force their way across traffic to follow the directions of the GPS.

Even If You Do Everything Right…

Congratulations, you are a perfect parent. You never speed, use your phone, drive while tired or intoxicated, and have in all ways set a perfect example for your child. You enrolled them in the best driving school in the country, and they are now qualified to drive the President of the United States. Your child will be a perfect driver for the rest of their life – a life that will, unfortunately, be filled with other people on the same roads they’re using. People who didn’t have your amazing parenting skills. People who until today, never even considered that it might not be the safest thing in the world to put on makeup, check email, cook lunch on a hotplate on the passenger seat, or whatever else it was they were doing when they crashed into your child.

Once everyone is safe and the authorities have arrived, a dash cam becomes an invaluable advocate for your child. Since so often it is the teen driver who is the cause of the accident, police and insurance companies may be inclined to believe the other driver in situations where it is not 100% clear who was at fault. Having visual record of the accident can save your teen from getting points on their license and save you from skyrocketing insurance rates. We installed the Garmin Dash Cam 30 in my son’s Jeep, and one recommendation I would make is to mount it either behind the rear view mirror or in another inconspicuous place. Along with the GPS, it can easily become a distraction itself. By mounting it behind the mirror and snaking the cables along the windshield trim, it becomes just another part of the vehicle. If he ever is in an accident, the camera will automatically save the current, previous, and next recordings. It is then just a matter of ejecting the SD card and copying the files onto a PC.

Not all incidents on the road are someone else’s fault. Mechanical failures happen in even the best maintained vehicles. Tires blow, batteries die, belts break. One of the best gifts you can give your kid is a AAA membership. You can use their roadside assistance service up to four times a year for anything from running out of gas or locking your keys in your car to flat tires or towing an inoperable vehicle. Membership also provides discounts on travel destinations, food, and shopping. While it’s not a replacement for basic automobile knowledge like jump starting a car or changing a flat, a AAA membership provides peace of mind in having a single number to call for any problems that may arise.

If you do not have roadside assistance, or even if you do and you want to make sure your teen driver is prepared for any eventuality, here are a few items that are worth tossing in their trunk or glove box.

I’m pretty sure I still have no idea what I’m doing, but knowing I’ve taken even a few small steps in helping my new teen driver be prepared for whatever the road may throw in his direction has provided at least a brief respite from that little voice in my head…

...for a couple more years, anyway.
…for a couple more years, anyway.

Both Garmin and 1byOne provided samples of their product for review. All opinions are my own.

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