teen driver

Learning to drive in the US – from a parent’s perspective

How does teaching your child to drive differ in the United States?

Across the table at my Mother’s Day breakfast, my Number One son revealed to me that he recently had an “incident” in his car, and that it’s going to cost him $1500 to fix the paint on the bumper he tapped in Los Angeles’s notorious rush-hour traffic.

He’s turning 24, and this is his first automotive accident. I’d like to attribute his excellent driving skills to being the child of an automotive journalist, but it’s more likely that his father, a conservative accountant, taught him proper caution behind the wheel.

Ben was well-prepared to take the steering wheel of our family minivan; we patiently gave him every opportunity to practice, practice, practice on both city streets and crowded Los Angeles-area freeways, even at night, which can be one of the most dangerous times for young drivers to be on the roads. If we were going somewhere together during the months he was permitted, he was my chauffeur.

Our stipulation that he had to maintain a 3.0 GPA to qualify for our insurance company’s “good student” discount delayed his license for six months after his birthday, giving us even more time to guide his behind-the-wheel learning. Statistics show that student drivers who maintain better grades are less likely to make mistakes behind the wheel, which is why insurance companies in the US will give discounts. And, besides being concerned about their safety, many parents I knew were equally as concerned about the cost of insuring their teen drivers: Earning that Good Student discount is an important way to save money on your teen’s car insurance premiums.

Car crashes are the number one cause of death for teens; according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety [IIHS], mile for mile, teens continue to have the highest crash risk of any age group on the road. However, Graduated licensing laws common across the United States now help young drivers achieve better skills by restricting their driving during the first six to 12 months after receiving their license. Limits typically include supervised driving by an adult during a provisional license phase, restricted driving at night, a limit on the number of passengers allowed in the car, and allowing only family members to be the passengers of a neophyte driver.

Statistics show these restrictions help new teenage drivers gain valuable driving experience; develop safe, responsible driving habits; and avoid distracted driving situations. In fact, the National Safety Council says that Graduated Driver Licensing programs are proven to reduce crashes involving teen drivers by as much as 40 percent.

teen driver

And even now, as my now-14-year-old anticipates his future as the pilot of my beloved Ford Fiesta, I take many opportunities to educate him about good driving habits while we’re in the car together. I also point out the bad habits of those drivers around us – even my own – which often include following too closely, or failing to use turn signals. He’s also been known to take my smartphone away from me to prevent me from being a distracted driver.

“As a parent, it’s up to you to get more involved and teach teenagers about the dangers of driving – such as distractions, drinking and speeding,” says Randy Petro, a prominent claims officer. It’s extremely important that we set a good example for our young drivers, so some driver’s training programs even offer separate sessions for the parents, such as the B.R.A.K.E.S. teen driver program created by Top Fuel Drag Racer Doug Herbert, which offers separate training for parents to help them break bad habits they might have acquired during their years of driving.

The free B.R.A.K.E.S. program also focuses on the dangers of impaired driving, including drowsy, drunk, buzzed, distracted, and high driving with hands-on behind-the-wheel instruction that includes skid control, panic braking, distracted driving, and crash avoidance. Sponsored by Kia, this is just one of several educational programs supported by automotive manufacturers: Ford’s “Driving Skills for Life” program was established in 2003 by the Ford Motor Company Fund, the Governors Highway Safety Association, and a panel of safety experts to teach newly licensed teens the necessary skills for safe driving beyond what they learn in standard driver education programs. Mazda’s “Project Yellow Light” program is a scholarship competition meant to help teens encourage their peers to develop and embrace safe driving habits. Toyota’s “Teen Drive 365” program teaches parents how being a good role model can help their teens be safe behind the wheel. And, retailer The Tire Rack offers a program in conjunction with BMW and Michelin called “Street Survival” which uses the teen’s own car to teach them its handling limits and how to control it under real-world emergency situations.

These are just a few of the supplementary programs available to teen drivers in the United States that offer additional education beyond what’s offered in standard driver training programs. Statistics show that teen drivers who have participated in a B.R.A.K.E.S. program are 64 percent less likely to be involved in a crash in the three years following their training, and 84 percent of all B.R.A.K.E.S. graduates since 2011 have had no crashes. This is evidence that such focused driving programs significantly contribute to the students’ improved skills.

I also appreciate knowing that our conscientious efforts when teaching our first son to drive enabled him to go seven years before having his very first fender bender!