Research shows that if parents make and enforce family driving rules that are stricter than state laws, their teens will generally be safer behind the wheel. At DriveitHOME.org, we encourage parents to use a document – called a parent/teen agreement – to help develop and customize those rules for each family.
I know how important this document is. I work at the National Safety Council. I understand the risks of driving, particularly when a driver is inexperienced. Thousands of good kids with new licenses will die this coming year. Just as they did last year. Even in this era of safer cars and safer roads, car crashes still are the number one killer of teens. So, anything we can do to help make sure no more precious lives are lost is important. And best practice would be to start with a parent/teen agreement.
But I have a confession. My teen and I didn’t actually sign one.
I really know my daughter, and I made the decision that, in our case, the process of signing a document was too formal for our relationship. Tools are just that – tools. They are built to be customized. She would not have reacted well to an A to Z discussion about her driving rules. I also know the dynamic that has existed in our family since she was born. Our typical conversation is informal. But when I do impose structure, there are consequences.
I also knew what driving rules needed to be in place to help keep her safer as she was learning to drive. So even though we didn’t sign the document, I knew what should be included – rules that limited her driving privileges until she gained experience over time.
We talked as issues came up. It was more than a conversation, actually. I had leverage points, and I used them.
For instance, she didn’t get to use the family car until I knew where she was going, when she was getting back, and she assured me there would be no passengers.
Another big leverage point was not giving her a car. Cost aside, if I had the keys and was the primary user of the family vehicle, she had to earn the right, and not expect the right, to drive. Each time she wanted to go anywhere she had to ask.
That made it easier to enforce family driving rules stricter than state laws, which is the major goal of the parent/teen agreement. Driving rules including she could not drive passengers. Or drive at night.
It was just as important for me to know whose car she was getting into as a passenger. Who were the kids who would be driving her around? Did they have their license more than 6 months? More than a year? What were their parents like? Would I get into a car the parents were driving.
Once, her date for one of the high school dances wanted to drive her to the dance. Until I found out he only had his license for a week. I told her no. Actually, I said NO! Driving for just a week. Would you let your precious daughter ride with someone who has just recently met the bare minimum qualifications to head out on the road? Even if she begged you and told her you were going to ruin her life?
Anna recently moved out of her restricted license period. She has had her license for more than a year. And I still insist we drive together so I can see how she is doing. In the snow, or heavy rain, or going into the city, or on long trips. There is much she needs to learn.
But she is doing a good job. And she needs me to tell her that too.
* Alex Epstein is manager of digital and social media at the National Safety Council. Alex spearheaded the parent education initiative, DriveitHOME, to help parents with new teen drivers understand how to properly coach and protect teens.