Teen driver safety guide: Getting on the road

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There’s no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in an irreversible way, but we will begin to get back to “normal” and that includes getting back to school, back to work and back on the road. You have a big birthday coming up, the one that makes you eligible to start earning your driver’s license. But simply being old enough to get a license is no guarantee you are ready to earn one. Even when you do, there are going to be limits on what you can and can’t do behind the wheel. Some limits set by your parents and others that are a matter of law. Driving is of course a rite of passage for just about every American teen, but true maturity comes from following the rules of the road and appreciating their importance to driver and pedestrian safety.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. Consider these statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): There were 3,255 Teen Drivers (15-19) involved in fatal crashes in 2017. Total teen deaths were 2,526 and 229 of those deaths were due to distracted driving.

The last thing most new drivers want to hear is another adult talking about responsibility. Most teens will struggle to hold back their eye-rolling and scoffing when exposed to all of the brochures, posters, videos and lectures about teen drivers. The reality is that adults, parents included, remember exactly what it was like to be your age. Be patient. Adult instructors have been where you are now; they are there to make sure you, and all those around you, are not endangered by your actions.

Getting a License: What to Expect

The Big Setup

Getting a driver’s license doesn’t happen overnight. There is more to it than a written test, some parallel parking and your license picture. In some ways, a driver’s license is the culmination of years of subtler driving education. Most of us start learning to drive long before we’re legally allowed to earn a license. In fact, it starts in the backseat when we’re very young, seeing and feeling the movement of the car and the behavior of the driver. By the time we’re riding up front, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what a car does – and who is in control.

When it comes time to learn the actual act of driving, paying attention to your parents’ driving behavior is crucial. Teens and parents alike should pay attention to what goes on behind the wheel; how the car interacts with other cars; how conditions on the road affect driving; and how to deal with pedestrians, animals and obstacles. In the year leading up to that big birthday, parents and teens should actively discuss what all is involved in the world of driving, especially the things to keep in mind while doing the actual business of driving.

This is a great opportunity for soon to be drivers to practice driving from the safety of the passenger seat. Get into the habit of paying attention to the road and the other cars, instead of your phone, your fast food, your passengers or any other distractions. Start to make attentive driving a habit before you get behind the wheel. You’ll quickly understand just how fast things happen in a car and how dangerous distracted driving can be.

The Written Test

Now that you or your teen driver has spent at least a few months developing good car habits, like turning off phones and paying careful attention to what is going on in and around the car, it’s time to prepare for the first official step in becoming a driver: studying for and passing the written test. Becoming a responsible driver starts with the written test. Simply passing is not enough because more than a good grade rides on the result.

Properly preparing for the test means far more than memorizing road signs and basic traffic laws. Understanding what different road signs and traffic signals mean is more than knowing red means stop, green means go. Take stop signs at a four-way intersection. Imagine if there were no stop signs or traffic lights and everybody just went wherever they pleased. There would constantly be accidents because no one would or could know when another vehicle was going to go. Traffic signs and signals are designed to create a harmonious system of roads, however it also counts on the compliance (and mutual understanding) of all drivers.

You Passed – Now What?

Many states now have graduated licenses for new teen drivers, meaning that passing the written test gets you a learner’s permit. In some states teen drivers can get permits as young as 14, but it’s a rare, often need-based occurrence; 16 is the median age for learner’s permits. The specific rules vary by state, but all consider this to be a learning period and require a licensed driver to be in the car with the permit holder. The learner’s permit allows the teen driver to learn to drive and develop basic driving skills under the supervision of an experienced driver, all in preparation for their licensing test.

Road tests vary by state and sometimes by locality; all tests are intended to make sure the new teen driver is able to adequately control the vehicle and has a firm understanding of proper driving technique and the rules of the road. Taking a drivers education course is another option for teens who want to gain even more experience before the official test.

The Graduated License: Laws for New Drivers

Passed but Still Graduating

Many states now have graduated driver’s licenses. This means that even after a teen passes both the written and road tests, there may still be varying degrees of restriction as to when, where and how they are allowed to drive. For example, Alabama does not allow new teen drivers to drive between 12:00 AM and 6:00 AM, while Massachusetts says no driving between 12:30 AM and 5:00 AM.

There are other laws teens will find they have to adhere to, such as passenger restrictions. Georgia, for example, does not allow any new young drivers to have passengers under 21 for the first 6 months, no more than 1 passenger under 21 for the second 6 months and no more than 3 passengers until the new driver is 18. Check the restrictions for your state with your motor vehicle department or with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety website.

Protecting the Roads: Parental Responsibilities

For parents, one of the most terrifying phrases they can hear is “I passed my road test!” Prior to children getting their driver’s licenses, parents have almost complete control over the comings and goings of their kids. A driver’s license mean a whole new level of independence for teens – a scary realization. But there are lots of things parents can do to reduce the amount of anxiety they have when it comes to teen driver safety.

The Car

A safe car does not have to mean a new car or a car of a certain size. Put another way, bigger and newer is not necessarily better. New or used, a vehicle’s safety rating is what matters. The Insurance Institute For Highway Safety rates nearly all vehicles that have been sold in the United States since 1995 and allows users to search for vehicles by make, model and year.

The ratings start out with easy to understand overall evaluations of major areas of concern, like front and side collision, head restraints and roof strength. These are rated as Good, Acceptable, Marginal or Poor. They also provide much more detailed evaluation including pictures and crash test results. When checking these results it is very important to check for the specific year you’re considering because changes from one model year to another can dramatically affect results.

The Long Arm of Parental Law

State laws vary widely when it comes to young drivers taking to the road. While knowing the laws is of course crucial, these laws should not be a substitute for the long arm of parental law. Your state may say your teen can drive until midnight but should not trump your comfort level if you think 9, 10 or 11 PM is late enough for them to be driving.

As parents you are the ultimate rule maker for your children, and your comfort level is the one thing that matters most. Setting restrictions on things like the number of passengers and how far from home your teen can travel are all perfectly reasonable parental decisions.

Explain to your teen driver that restrictions are not permanent; they can be adjusted and lifted as their experience and driving ability develops. You can even consider installing monitoring equipment that reports back speed, distance, even braking and acceleration trend. Such equipment allows you to keep an eye on the progress of young drivers when you are not in the car with them.

Behind the Wheel: Teens and Distracted Driving

Part of driving a car is following the laws of your state and your parents, but those things are only part of the picture. Understanding why driving laws and rules are in place, and what happens when they are broken, will make following them a no-brainer. For instance, think of driving this way: you wouldn’t point a loaded weapon at someone, even by mistake, right? While it might be construed as over the top, it’s important to understand that a car or a truck can easily turn into a big weapon that injures or kills passengers and pedestrians as fast as a gun. 

Source: NHTSA (distracted driving deaths in 2018 for all ages)

Outside of clicking your seat belt, the safest, smartest action you can take when behind the wheel of a car switching your phone off. When a phone is off, you are simply unable to hear incoming calls or the buzz of a new text – far safer than trying to ignore an active phone. The danger of looking away even for short bursts of time is more dangerous than you realize, even at low speeds.

Here’s an example that takes 2 seconds.

  • You’re driving down the road at 35 MPH and you look down at your phone to read a new text.
  • You look away for literally 2 seconds – one Mississippi, two Mississippi
  • Your eyes return to the road and your car is squishing right into the back of a stopped car.

How did it happen? It was only two seconds. Well at just 35 MPH, less than you are legally allowed to go on many, many roads, you traveled 103 feet. Even if you see the car stopped 100 feet ahead of you and you jam on your brakes, it’s going to take more than 200 feet to stop. Either way, you just had a very serious accident and it took all of two seconds.

Another thing that takes two seconds can save your life, literally. Your seatbelt is by far the most important safety feature in any car or truck, period. Front and side airbags, even a full roll cage, are not going to offer as much protection as a seatbelt.

Behind the Wheel: Teens and DUIs

There is no such thing as “a little drunk” or “not very high.” Drugs, alcohol and cars do not mix. The most dangerous part of being under the influence and trying to drive is that you don’t realize just how slow your reflexes are – even from one beer. Each drink you take slows you down a little more, and to make matters worse, intoxication can make you think you are even better than you are sober, when in reality you are twice as dangerous.

Before you get behind the wheel drunk, or as the passenger of an intoxicated driver, ask us what’s worse: the inconvenience of dealing with cabs, parents, even walking or ending up dead. I’ll give you a hint, one path is permanent and the other isn’t. It’s never worth the risk. To learn more on the dangers and consequences and enforcement efforts such as the Zero Tolerance Laws, start by researching the creation and enforcement of drunk driving laws across the country.

If the thought of endangering your life and the lives of others doesn’t convince you that drinking under the influence is bad, consider that it’s illegal too.  Even if no one gets hurt, the consequences of a DUI conviction can linger and become detrimental not only to your driving record but also to your future. You could end up with a suspended license, hefty fines, high insurance premiums, required participation in drunk driving education courses, community service and even possible jail time. It’s best to avoid driving under the influence at all times, even if you’re only driving “just around the corner”.  Take a look at these charts that approximates your blood alcohol level (BAL).

The takeaway?

Everything highlighted in yellow is a BAL higher than 0.08, the legal limit in every state in the US, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Source: California State University Bakersfield, Counseling Center
  • The average male weight in the US is about 195 lbs; that means after 4 drinks, the average male is over the legal blood alcohol level of 0.08.
Source: California State University Bakersfield, Counseling Center
  •  The average female weight in the US is about 165 lbs; that means after 3-4 drinks, the average female over the legal blood alcohol level of 0.08.

Keep in mind that these are just approximations, no two bodies are the same so your BAL may be different from what is listed on the chart. Even more, teen bodies are still developing which could affect how alcohol affects their system. Either way, driving under the influence is proven to affect your driving abilities.

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)*Typical EffectsPredictable Effects on Driving
About 2 alcoholic drinks**
-Impared loss of judgment-Relaxation-Slight increase in body temperature-Altered mood-Decline in visual functions (rapid tracking of a moving target)-Decline in multitasking abilities 
About 3 alcoholic drinks**
-Exaggerated behavior-Decrease in small-muscle control (e.g., focusing your eyes)-Impaired judgment-Usually good feeling-Reduced alertness-Lowered inhibition-Reduced coordination-Reduced ability to track moving objects-Difficulty steering-Reduced response time in emergency driving situations
About 4 alcoholic drinks**
-Poor muscle coordination (e.g., balance, speech, vision, reaction time and hearing)-Reduced ability to detect danger-Judgment, self-control, reasoning and memory are impaired-Concentration lapses-Short-term memory loss-Decreased speed control-Reduced capability to process information (e.g., signal detection, visual search)-Impaired perception
About 5 alcoholic drinks**
-Clear deterioration of reaction time and control-Slurred speech, poor coordination and slowed thinking-Erratic driving, inability to maintain lane position and brake appropriately
About 7 alcoholic drinks**
-Far less muscle control than normal-Vomiting may occur -Major loss of balance
-Substantial impairment in vehicle control, attention to driving task and incapable of necessary visual and auditory information processing

Source: CDC.gov

Zero tolerance laws, minimum legal drinking ages, and the graduated licensing program has helped but the most important factor is awareness and education. Despite every state having these programs, teens still report drinking and driving. Parent and adult involvement is a crucial step to further lower these numbers.

Experience Matters

How many things have you done in your life that you got perfectly right on the first try? Think about everything you excel at in school, the sports you play, school plays, your best subject; anything you do well now took you time to get good at. Well driving works the same way and then some. It takes time to learn to handle different conditions like rain, snow and ice. Even everyday things like driving in darkness take practice.

Slow down, getting where you’re going two minutes later than you planned is not going to make a bit of difference. Responsible driving is all about providing the right answers to simple questions like which is worse: getting to your friend’s house 2 minutes late or not at all? Missing a lame preview at the movies or not seeing the movie? Taking the extra time to go slower and be more cautious while you learn to handle the unexpected is the easiest way to avoid becoming a statistic.

Additional Teen Driver Resources: Working Together for Safe Roads

Teen driving is not an activity that teens do on their own; it’s a family affair, so why not treat it as such. Expect the unexpected and prepare for it. Learning to drive is the start of adulthood, and that means knowing how to deal with driving related issues, such as minor traffic accidents and breakdowns. Find or develop checklists of what to do in the event of various automotive emergencies.

Make sure your teen’s vehicle is equipped with essential equipment like road flares, first aid kit, jumper cables, extra fluids, a spare tire and a jack. Make sure they know how to use them all. In the event of an accident, regardless of who is at fault, make sure they understand what information they should exchange with the other parties involved.

It’s hard to overstate the gravity of driving when you are first getting started. Luckily there are a number of resources teens can – and often must – turn to in order to prove they are up for the task.


  • When you get your driver’s license and your parents allow you to drive, they are saying they trust you to make the right decisions every time – not most of the time. One bad decision can change your life forever. This video is about how that happened to one girl on her prom night.
  • A big step for new drivers is getting on the highway and that can mean sharing the road with trucks, BIG TRUCKS. This short video will help you understand how to deal with big rigs on the highway.
  • Werner Herzog’s acclaimed documentary, From One Second to the Next, explores the consequences of texting while driving on all parties involved.
  • This is the story of Alex Brown and what can go wrong when you text while driving.
  • Drinking, getting high or talking/texting on a phone are not the only dangerous driving behaviors. Drowsy driving can be just as deadly as drunk driving.

Pop Quizzes

Free Safe Driving Apps

  • DriveMode: Silences alerts, calls and texts.  Auto replies will go out for you.
  • EverDrive: Rates you on safe driving and if your friends or family also have the app, you can compete and see who has the highest score.
  • LifeSaver: Detects when your car is moving and locks your phone to prevent distracted driving.
  • TrueMotion Family: Each trip is graded on a 100 point scale and can measure performance improvement.
  • TextDrive: Specifically for sending automated responses to calls or texts while driving.
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