Green Light to Drive?

By Joel Brenner, MD, MPH

Teenage boy behind the steering wheel

Yesterday, he was a toddler playing “red light-green light” in the yard. Today, he’s a teenager who wants a green light to drive. You can’t put the brakes on time, but you can help your teenager be safer behind the wheel.

The quality of your child’s driver’s education is extremely important. Motor vehicle crashes continue to be the leading cause of death for 16- to 20-year-olds, accounting for approximately 5,500 fatalities and 450,000 injuries annually. Many teen crashes are caused by inexperience, inadequate practice time and judgment errors, not just from speeding and impulsive risk taking.

In Virginia, parents of children with learner’s permits are required to verify that their children have spent at least 40 hours, 10 of which must be after sunset, driving in guided practice sessions, before they can receive a driver’s license. The department of motor vehicles even publishes a guide book to help you be a good teacher. You can pick one up at any DMV office or download it at www.dmv.virginia.gov.

Emphasize to your child that it is never acceptable to drive after even one alcoholic drink and that he should never ride with a friend who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Institute a free call policy in your house. Allow your teens to call home whenever they need a ride if they or their companions have been drinking. Promise not to ask any questions or offer any punishment the night of the call.

Teenage girl in a car

Teach your children not to drive when they’re sleepy and to limit distractions while driving. That means no cell phone use for phone calls or text messaging, no music so loud it prevents them from hearing the traffic around them, and no more than one passenger in the car.

Control access to the family cars, and make sure any car your child drives is safe. Most important of all, be a good role model. Wear your seat belt and make others buckle up, too. Drive safely and courteously at the speed limit. Do not use your cell phone while driving.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents ask their teens to sign a safe driving contract to set clear limits as well as punishments for infractions. For a copy, go to www.aap.org. Another good site for information is www.safeteendriving.org.

Finally, remember that driving is a privilege. If you suspect that your child cannot handle the responsibility of driving, tell her about the improvements you need to see before you’ll agree to that driver’s education class.

Dr. Brenner is an adolescent medicine and sports medicine specialist with Children’s Specialty Group PLLC at CHKD.