How to Talk to Teen Drivers about Safety

Teens contribute to about a third of car crash-related deaths. For example, in 2019 there were 2,042 crashes and 628 of them were teens. Now is a great time to start having conversations with your teen or even a preteen about teen safe driving practices. Research shows that parents have the potential to be the biggest influencers over their teens’ behaviors in the car.

So, what are some of the contributing factors and what can parents do? On this week’s On Call for All Kids, Petra Stanton, M.S.W., CPSTI, Safe Kids Supervisor at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, gives parents some tips to help their teen be safe driver.

What should parents tell their teen drivers?

Distractions are among the most common things that teens encounter in the cars. Distractions can come from a multitude of sources including other passengers in the car. Kids can get excited and talk too much, which can distract their attention from driving. And also avoid using electronic devices.

What about seat belts?

Half of the teens who die in car crashes are not buckled up. When we did observational surveys at high schools, we saw that if a parent was not buckled up, typically the teen was not either. This is where parents can make a difference. Establishing a culture of everyone always being buckled up on every ride can instill life-long habits in the kids.

Speeding, alcohol and other substances can also play a role.

What boundaries should parents set?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, parents need to set clear rules for teens. But first, parents need to know the graduated drivers licensing laws for their state.

From there, caregivers should model good behaviors and have clear expectations. Often, these include saying NO. The recommendation is to say no to cell phone use, to other passengers, to speeding, to drowsy driving and to alcohol or other substances. Yes, goes to always buckling the seat belt.

But this can be challenging to do, especially when it comes to conversation with teens.

What is the teen driver’s perspective?

Shaina Finkel is the Florida and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) national president. She says it is important for teens to feel that they can be open with their parents and comfortable with their peers. Teens often fear that if they tell their parents about what is truly going on, that they may get in trouble or be told they can’t do the thing they really wanted to do. Saying this, there must be adjustments on both sides of the table for productive and truthful conversations to happen.

It has to start with the adults. It is crucial for parents to create that safe space early on with their child. Sharing personal stories from when they were their child’s age, engaging in personal conversation about their days, and just overall being sure that conversation is a regular thing is the first step to forming a solid base to grow from. If a teen is already used to having conversations, the uncomfortable ones will likely not seem so difficult. It is important for parents to establish with their child that the reason why they are having these conversations is because they care about them and want to see them alive and well. This helps to eliminate the teens’ fear that the conversations will always lead to punishments.

As for teens, they must be respectful of the relationship of trust that has been built. They generally have a good idea of what is considered right and wrong in their household and they should follow what they know is right. When they have a question about if something is proper or find themselves in the aftermath of a wrong choice, this is when parents must be receptive and calm and remember to care now and teach later. Answering your child with anger and yelling will only make them no longer communicate with you. Appreciate their honesty and overall appreciate that they trusted enough to call on you in the first place. Imagine what could have happened if they didn’t have that trust to call.

On Call for All Kids is a weekly series featuring Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital experts. 

Injury Prevention and Child Safety

The Injury Prevention and Child Safety Program at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, provides safety information and resources for families to help keep kids safe.

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