License to Drive – A Parent’s Survival Guide to New Teen Drivers

Young Man Learning to Drive
April 3 2019

Fifteen is typically the age when teens take their written test in hopes of qualifying for their driving learner’s permit. For a year, many will practice driving around town, on highways and in parking lots to master the skills needed for that much-coveted license to drive. While teens see the driving privilege and the age of 16 as a rite of passage and a path to independence, parents tend to face the milestone age with more apprehension.

The driving statistics for teenage drivers illustrate just why parents worry when kids take the driver’s seat. According to, new drivers (age 16) are the most prone to accidents. Even more unsettling? More than half of teen drivers talk on the cell phone when they are behind the wheel. And it’s distracted driving that has become one of the leading causes of deaths on the road. In fact, in 2016, more than 3,000 people died because a driver was distracted.

Parents can help teach new teen drivers how to be smarter (and safer!) behind the wheel by educating them about defensive driving techniques and good driving habits. While teens learn the basic rules of the road from state driving manuals, there are many other skills and engrained routines that will help keep teens safe on the road.

Driving Schools

Parents are often a teen’s first driving instructor. However, some teens need a little more professional guidance and a driving school or professional driving lessons could be the ideal option. Some schools, though, can be costly. However, one of the more inexpensive options can often be found at your teen’s school. Many high schools offer driver’s education courses that teach kids the basics of driving and the rules of the road. Fees for driver’s ed classes vary per school, though.

Non-profit organizations also may offer driving courses. Look for non-profits that are focused on teen safety or distracted driving awareness. Some organizations—like Doug Herbert’s B.R.A.K.E.S.—offer free courses but require that parents put down a refundable deposit. Online classes may be less expensive, although they won’t provide on-the-road instruction.

Budgeting for Driving Schools

Some areas might not have access to low-cost schools or programs, but parents may still want their teen to have professional driving instruction. Budgeting for expensive driving schools might mean cutting out fast food or entertainment expenses. Parents also can encourage teens to help earn money to pay for lessons. Teens may be able to mow lawns, babysit or take on another part-time job to earn the extra cash for driving school.

Safe Cars for New Drivers

The car that your teen drives also may help keep them safe on the road. While many parents might not have the budget for a new car for their new driver, they can investigate used automobiles. And some models might be better suited to less experienced drivers.

So what size car is ideal for new drivers? Larger automobiles are considered safer options, although mid-sized cars and SUVs might be a better option for maneuvering into tight spots.

Cars that accelerate to high speeds can be a dangerous—and potentially deadly—temptation.  The IIHS-HLDI advises parents to avoid allowing teens to have access to cars that boast high horsepower. Also, before teens secure the keys to any vehicle (even the family automobile), be sure that the car is up-to-speed on safety: lights should be in working order, fluids should be topped off, brake pads should be checked, etc.

Parents also need to decide on automatic or manual transmission options. Obviously, if a teen learned to drive on a manual transmission, then either option should be just fine. But learning a manual transmission takes some time, and some people NEVER catch on. So be sure that your teen is secure with the stick shift before sending them on their way. Otherwise, opt for an automatic!

Insurance Issues

Once teens earn their license, they also need to secure insurance. Insurance for new drivers can be incredibly expensive. If parents can’t afford the premium increase, then teens need to find a way to help pay for their coverage. To ensure that you get the best deal on auto insurance, shop around and review all the quotes and coverage options. Some companies may offer discounts for good grades. Never, ever, let your new driver on the road without insurance coverage!

Discuss Distracted Driving & Establish Guidelines

Distracted driving is dangerous, but it could also be lethal. Parents should discuss safe driving expectations with teens and establish guidelines for road privileges. Some parents create driving contracts that outline all the rules and responsibilities that are required for driving alone.

Cell Phone Use

Teach teens that using a cell phone while driving is dangerous. Distracted driving laws vary across the country, and a violation could lead to a fine. However, some states have extremely stringent guidelines about distracted driving, so it is very important that parents (and young drivers) understand the laws and the penalties in their state.

So how can parents set cell phone limits? Some phones can be disabled while a teen is driving…although they remain functional for emergency calls.  Proactive conversations also are important, so teens understand boundaries and expectations.

Other Distractions

Cell phones aren’t the only distractions while driving. Adjusting the thermostat, changing a radio station, eating and talking to friends can also take attention from safe driving. Parents may want to limit the number of friends in the car (or even prohibit teen passengers), and parents should teach drivers when is the safest time to adjust in the car (turning the station, etc.).

Drugs & Alcohol

Teens need to understand that it is never OK to drive impaired or under the influence in any way, and they should know to NEVER get in the car with anyone who has used drugs or alcohol. However, while the legal drinking age is 21, drinking and driving among teens remains problematic. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notes that “in 2016, almost one out of five teen drivers involved in fatal crashes had been drinking.”  Every year, thousands of people lose their lives because of drunk or impaired drivers. In fact, every year drinking and driving kills more than 10,000 individuals.

Nighttime Driving & Other Limitations

Parents of new drivers also may want to discuss time limitations for driving privileges. Some parents are not comfortable with allowing teens to drive at night or during bad weather. Teens should have boundaries as to when they can drive solo and what time periods are off limits.

However, at some point, teens need to understand how to navigate during dusk or darker periods and how to maneuver in bad weather. To help teens grasp the fundamentals of driving in bad weather, parents can help them practice in open areas like empty parking lots or streets with minimal traffic. Parking lots are ideal for helping teens navigate snow and learn how to brake properly during bad weather conditions.

Rewards for Safe Drivers

In the beginning, the rules for new drivers may be expansive. As teens exhibit more responsibility and show that they can be trusted to make smart driving decisions, parents may want to loosen the reins a bit. Eventually, all teen drivers will become adults who will make their own decisions—good and bad.

Set driving goals for new drivers that allow them to earn more driving privileges. For example, a year without accidents or a ticket can lead to more freedom on the road (in safe ways, of course). Parents should set their own goals and reward systems for newly-licensed teens. However, parents need to keep in mind that absolute independence is the eventual result once a teen becomes a legal adult.

When Teens Become Dangerous Drivers

Some new drivers might prove to be reckless on the road. Maybe they’ve had an accident, or the tickets are piling up. Parents of teens who exhibit poor driving choices and dangerous habits should evaluate the situation. While the situation may warrant driving school, it also may mean that the driver isn’t yet ready for the driving privilege. Parents need to be prepared to set penalties for poor choices. When creating the rules for driving, consequences for breaking those rules need to be very clear. Some parents may take away the keys. Others may create driving curfews. When you set consequences, follow through!

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Driving is a privilege, not a right. And when teens turn 16 and earn their driver’s license, parents should be prepared to set rules and boundaries to ensure safety. Distracted driving and impaired driving can be lethal. It’s up to parents to educate teens about driving safety that goes beyond the basic rules of the road (like speeding!). Some parents may wish to create a driving contract that outlines all the details for driving privileges. However, the contract also should include rewards for safe and smart driving as well as consequences for those who don’t follow the guidelines of the driving contract. The goal for parents is to turn new drivers into safe and experienced drivers who don’t just understand driving laws but who also know how to engage in defensive driving habits. Because street smarts can be the difference between life and death on the road.