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The moment your teen gets her driver’s license is a big one for the whole family. For her, it’s a milestone: Independence! Freedom! No more embarrassing parental pick-ups and drop-offs complete with a forced kiss good-bye and hug hello! For you, it’s just as sweet: One less kid to shuttle around between swim meets and debate-team meetings and school dances and band practices. Plus, there’s a new driver to take over carpool duty when your youngest needs a ride to school or to a friend’s house.
But before you send your teenager cruising off into the sunset — especially with siblings or other children in tow — keep in mind that, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a single passenger under 21 increases a 16- or 17-year-old driver’s fatal crash risk by 44 percent. Two such passengers double the fatal crash risk, and three or more under-21 passengers quadruple a driver’s risk of being killed in a crash. (On the other hand, the presence of an over-35 passenger decreases the crash risk by 62 percent.) Still, according to new research from the National Safety Council, 60 percent of parents allow or encourage their teens to drive younger siblings, and 43 percent allow or encourage their teens to give rides to friends. “Just because you’ve worked with them to pass their road test doesn’t mean they’re ready to contend with passengers who distract them with cell phone photos, horsing around, or playing with the radio,” Deborah Hersman, President and CEO of the National Safety Council, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Teens behave better and focus more when they are alone in the car, or are with adult passengers.”
Car crashes are the leading cause of death among teens in the United States. According to the CDC, an average of seven teens aged 16 to 19 died every day from motor vehicle injuries in 2011. “Parents spend a lot of time worrying about so many things — germs, gunfire, bullying — and those things are of course real concerns, but it’s important to remember that the most dangerous thing we expose our children to on a daily basis is the one sitting in the driveway or the garage,” Hersman says. “The good news is that parents are the most important influence in a teen driver’s life, so they can absolutely help keep their kids safer on the road.”
The National Safety Council recommends parents take these steps to help their teens drive safely:
1. Ban teen passengers for the first year of your child’s licensure.
“The first year and the first 1,000 miles are the riskiest for a teen driver,” Hersman says. “The thing that is putting kids at the greatest risk is inexperience.”
2. Practice driving with your child for 30 minutes a week.
“Help your teen learn the skills that will mitigate crash risk, like how to safely merge into traffic and make left turns, and driving at the right speeds for different road conditions,” Hersman says. “Parents like to teach the things that were hard for them, like parallel parking, but very few drivers have died parallel parking.”
3. Be patient and encouraging when driving with your teen.
“Learning to drive can be stressful for kids and parents alike,” Hersman says. “This is their first time, so, more than anything, they need your support and encouragement. Help them to feel confident that they can be a good and safe driver.”
4. Don’t do anything in the driver’s seat that you wouldn’t want your child to do, too.
“From the moment you turn your toddler forward-facing in her carseat, she’s watching everything you do,” Herman says. “If you are texting behind the wheel, or driving after a glass of wine, she will learn that behavior.”
Like so much of parenting, ensuring that your teen is a safe driver is about setting limits, Hersman says. “You can have geographical boundaries, or curfews,” she says. “Make whatever choices are necessary for you to be comfortable that your teen is in control.”