Parental Talks Can Make Kids Safer Drivers

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David P. Hall / Corbis

Earning a driver's license is a modern-day right of passage for American teens — and for their fretful parents. But even though it marks teenagers' first major step toward independence, researchers say parents can still wield a lot of influence on how safely — or hazardously — that transition unfolds.

Scientists at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia report in two studies that parents can significantly reduce the accident rate among teens simply by talking with them about driving and enforcing rules for safety — much the way, as has been shown, parents can reduce the risk of substance abuse through conversations about alcohol and drugs. In fact, driving should be considered as dangerous as alcohol and drugs, the scientists say. In 2005, the latest year for which the government has statistics on teen driving, adolescent deaths made up 12% of all deaths from car accidents, and 400,000 teens required treatment in an emergency department due to a motor-vehicle crash.

At first blush, the correlation between parental oversight and teen accident rates may seem obvious, but the research team was surprised by how much influence parental monitoring and communication actually had. In the new analysis, based on data from the National Young Driver Survey, a study of 5,665 students in grades 9 through 12, lead author Kenneth Ginsburg found that the safest drivers were those who reported that their parents had imposed strict rules on driving and also provided warm and supportive explanations for their rules. "This absolutely backs up what is intuitively known about parenting — that more-engaged parents are more effective," says Ginsburg. "The bottom line is that you have got to talk to your kids in ways that they know this is about safety and not control. If you make up rules and they think that you are invading their personal space or that in some way you are going to stop their road to independence, then they will reject the rules."

The safest drivers in the study had half the crash risk of students without parental surveillance in the year preceding the survey. The aggressively supervised teens were also 50% less likely to speed, 71% less likely to drive after drinking and 29% less likely to use their cell phones while on the road, compared with their friends who reported having more-permissive parents.

In a second study, Ginsburg and another group reanalyzed the same data set and found that teens who considered themselves to be the primary driver of a vehicle were twice as likely to get into accidents as those who shared responsibility for a car or had to report to their parents for each use. In the survey, 70% of kids reported that they were the main driver of a car, regardless of whether they owned the vehicle. This perception, says Ginsburg, can promote more irresponsible driving habits. "Kids who have easy access to the keys are probably less likely to have those protective conversations with their parents and talk about setting rules," he says. "If they don't have to come home and return the keys or the car to someone, they are less likely to feel that what they are doing is closely watched, and they are less likely to watch or monitor themselves."

Most parents would probably say they talk to their teens about responsible driving, but Ginsburg notes specific techniques that the parents of the safest teen drivers tend to use. These include setting firm rules and boundaries for driving — such as no speeding, no talking on a cell phone or texting while on the road and no driving while intoxicated. Parents of safe drivers also tend to make it a point to explain to their children that the reason for their rules is to ensure the child's safety. “They have to see the rules as a safety issue, so they choose to do the right thing," he says.

Ginsburg also suggests that parents of new drivers adopt a version of the graduated licensing program that many states have in place. Rules include requiring a certain amount of experience before allowing teens to drive in bad weather or after dark during their first licensed year and prohibiting them from driving with other teens until they can demonstrate their ability to concentrate on the road and not get distracted by passengers. "Driving is such a potentially dangerous thing that we have to make it so that the car is not the place where teens test their independence," Ginsburg says. "We need to transform the car from being a place where they rebel or act out their freedom fantasies to becoming a place where they demonstrate responsibility. Wise parents can do that."