Empowering Teen Drivers While Keeping Them Safe

When teenage children get their driver’s licenses, it’s a rite of passage for them but a bittersweet day for you. Instead of worrying about driving them everywhere, you’ll worry about them getting home safely.

Even the most responsible teenager will make some mistakes on the road—it’s how they learn. But in practice, that means that their first days on the road come with elevated risk.

Of course, keeping your kids and their friends safe is your primary concern. But teen drivers also can put your family’s financial security at risk. Consider these two recent cases:

  • A young driver was involved in a head-on collision killing a student in her early twenties. The driver’s cell phone records proved he sent and received several text messages at the approximate time of the crash. He also had a prior history of dangerous driving behavior. The family of the victim sued the young man for negligence. They also sued his father, claiming he was negligent to entrust his car to the son given his driving record. A jury ruled in favor of the victim’s family―with a verdict of more than $21.8 million in damages.
  • An 18-year-old borrowed his father’s company car. He was driving too fast and lost control. In the crash, a passenger was paralyzed from the chest down. Prior to the accident, the driver and passenger had been drinking at the home of a friend. The injured passenger sued the driver, the driver’s father and his company, as well as the parents of the friend with whom they had been drinking. He won more than $30.4 million in judgments.

Chances are your teen realizes the importance of the technical aspects of driving: handling the wheel, parking, knowing the laws, etc. As a parent, you know that it also requires more complex skills like staying alert to what’s going on around you, being ready to respond to changing conditions or traffic and interacting with other drivers and pedestrians.

What to consider before teens get in the driver’s seat

To maximize their safety, it’s important to lay the groundwork long before they sit for their driving test. Some key steps you can consider to help them learn the safest practices and attitudes are:

  • Hire a professional driving instructor. No matter how hands-on of a parent you are, delegating this responsibility is usually a good idea. Not only does it reduce your stress, teens are more likely to take constructive feedback on their driving to heart if it comes from someone other than a parent.
  • Outline rights and responsibilities. You and your teen should come to an agreement about when and where they can drive, whether they can drive with friends or younger siblings in the car, and what if any expenses you expect them to cover. Consider phasing in additional rights as they meet certain criteria or milestones. For example, once they’ve driven for three months without incident, they can start driving with friends in the car. When you’re having this discussion, emphasize that the restrictions aren’t about control; they’re aimed at giving your teen the best chances to stay safe.
  • Set the right example. Your words will have a lot more power if your teen sees you behaving the same way behind the wheel.


Anticipating the issues

Once your teen has his/her license, your goal should be to provide tools to explore the newly acquired freedom while also minimizing the risks. Part of that is assessing the kinds of situations that teenagers are likely to find themselves in, and proactively discussing the kinds of decisions you want them to make—even if you’re not there to guide them.

Common scenarios to discuss include:

  • The dangers of distracted driving, which is the greatest threat to the safety of your teen and others. breaks down distractions into three main areas:
    • Manual distractions – when our hands move away from the wheel.
    • Visual distractions – when our eyes are off the road.
    • Cognitive distractions – when our minds wander away from the task of driving.

Distracted driving can encompass all of these areas at once. Case in point: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that “dialing a phone number while driving increases your teen's risk of crashing by six times, and texting while driving increases the risk by 23 times.”

  • How to handle driving late at night or in inclement weather. These conditions can be challenging for even experienced drivers, but teens are less likely to know how to adapt their driving techniques – and even less likely to know when to simply stay off the roads.
  • What to do if a friend who’s supposed to drive has been drinking, is fatigued or otherwise impaired. Teens are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and will be reluctant to rock the boat by refusing to get in a car with a friend who may not be alert enough to drive. You may want to set up a system or code word your kids can use when they need you to intervene so they can get out of risky situations while still saving face with their friends.


As with most things, having an open discussion with teens upfront can potentially prevent a lot of heartache later. When you send them off with the keys, make sure you also send them off with the knowledge to use them wisely.