Since I started blogging about safe teen driving four years ago, I have gotten calls on occasion from parents, asking for advice about how to handle their teen drivers. Most recently, I received two calls from mothers who were calling out of fear and panic. Below, as excellent illustrations of the dilemmas of parents, I have recounted their pleas and my responses:
A single mother of a newly-licensed teen called me. She was almost in tears, on the edge of panic. She said her son was a good kid but she was terrified about his driving and did not know “where to start.”
We talked through the situation. Obviously, I will keep the particulars of her call confidential, and I note that where she lives in the United States made a difference in some of the advice I gave her, but let me summarize our conversation.
I said first that if she truly believed that her son was at risk, then she had to take decisive action to prevent him from driving. I explained that there is no law or rule that says that teens must be allowed to drive once they reach the state’s minimum age. I said that if her son is not ready to drive, she should take steps to make sure that he does not have access to keys or a car. I conceded that sometimes this is easier said than done, especially when the teen already has a license, but I reminded her (though she didn’t need reminding) that this was a potentially life or death situation. I asked if her son would take the car without permission and she said she didn’t think so, though our conversation noted that as a possibility that might even require her as a mother to get law enforcement involved. I suggested that because she is a single mother that she might get another family member or friend involved, if only for moral support.
We moved on to the assumption that if she took several steps, she could gain some control. I recommended that she get a good teen driving contract, sit down with her son, and make signing it non-negotiable. I explained that it would establish rules outside the heat of a particular situation where her son was insisting on driving.
We then discussed where to start. I mentioned my PACTS formula: passengers, alcohol, curfews, texting, and seat belts — five areas where, if she could gain control and get her son to buy in, she would be addressing major causes of crashes.
Finally, I highlighted some of the key advice from my book, Not So Fast: act like an air traffic controller, and follow the book’s other key pieces of advice. Do not allow joyrides, use keys as leverage, and do not allow electronic devices.
I am not sure if my advice settled her down or will ultimately turn her fear into control. At this point the only thing I am certain of is that she is not alone. But perhaps I gave her some places to start.
The second phone call: A topic I have written about several times (and have featured in one chapter of Not So Fast) is parent permission forms. Each summer, most high schools send out a form that asks parents for three types of permission: whether their teen can drive him or herself to and from school; whether their teen can be a passenger in another student’s car to and from school events; and whether their teen can drive other students to such events. I have criticized these forms because they are a very bad idea, given the overwhelming evidence that any teen driver with passengers creates a higher risk of a crash. Also, these forms usually don’t mention state law about teen drivers having passengers, and may give the impression that those laws don’t apply if school events are involved.
A mother who lives in a relatively affluent suburb of an East Coast city called to ask my advice about a vexing situation: Her daughter is a junior in a public high school, does not yet have her license, is the co-captain of a sports team, and other teens regularly drive her to school events including the team’s away games. To my utter amazement, the mother said that the school does not ask parents to sign permission forms allowing this to happen — the school just does it.
The mother said that she is fearful on two fronts. She is afraid that her daughter may be injured as a passenger in the car of an inexperienced teen driver, and she is afraid that if she brings this up to school officials, there may be retribution by the school for disrupting its transportation system, and possibly against her daughter, such as telling her that if she won’t accept the school’s system, then she cannot be on the team anymore.
Let me frame the issue if you have not already done so: this school community has put this mother in the position of having to decide between her daughter’s safety and her daughter’s participation in athletics.
This is not a legal opinion, but I suspect that the school is on thin ice without getting parents’ permission for transporting students with other students as drivers. If there were a crash with injuries or a fatality, would the school have some responsibility?
But back to the mother’s dilemma. I told her, first, that the school was wrong to put her and her family in this position. I noted that it was sad indeed that she felt that she could not raise the problem with school officials without fear of an adverse consequence for her daughter. But then I reminded her that she was absolutely correct in her perception that teens driving other teens, even to school events, is a very risky situation, her daughter’s safety is at risk, and she needs to act. I counseled her that there is strength in numbers. She should confidentially seek out other sensible, like-minded parents who are willing to join her in raising the issue, and then work together so she is not the only voice. Lastly, I told her that if she wants back up evidence about the dangers of teens driving teens, she should get a copy of the AAA Foundation’s 2012 study of teen driver crashes involving passengers — it analyzes 10,000 teen driver fatalities between 2005 and 2010. Another resource is the National Safety Council’s DriveitHOME website, which features national daily headlines involving teen driver crashes.
My heart breaks and my stomach turns for these mothers and their families.
Tim’s 17 year old some Reid died in a one-car crash in 2006. Since then, Tim has gone on to become a nationally-known advocate for safer teen driving, first through his national blog for parents, From Reid’s Dad, and now in his new book NOT SO FAST: Parenting Your Teen through the Dangers of Driving, published last month by the Chicago Review Press.