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Tough Parents and Good Teen Drivers

The great lesson of the first couple years of parenting is that it is hard to really, really screw up child rearing. Sure, the kids might be lousy sleepers or picky eaters or late walkers or too demure or too loud, but there's (usually) no permanent damage done. But that grand realization -- kids aren't fragile! -- tends to obscure, over time, the fact that older kids really do begin to become more fragile. If you look at death rates, they are comforting low between 1 year and 14 years before absolutely skyrocketing.

This fragility is largely a result of automobiles. And despite the fact that there is a huge industry at teaching parents how to feed their infants and discipline their toddlers, there is very little on what parents can do ensure that they raise safe drivers. But, as it turns out, parenting style plays a huge role in whether teens get into accidents. A study in today's issue of Pediatrics looked at four different kids of parents:

  • Authoritative (Supportive parents who set and enforced clear rules)

  • Authoritarian (Unsupportive parents who set and enforced clear rules)

  • Permissive (Supportive parents with loose rules and enforcement)

  • Uninvolved (Unsupportive parents with loose rules)

It wasn't a surprise to me that setting rules made a difference (even more of a difference than whether teens felt supported by their parents), but the magnitude of the benefit was impressive. Teens of "Authoritative" parents had half the crash risk of the kids of "Uninvolveds" and a 71 percent lower risk of driving drunk. (They're also less likely to be on a cell phone.) Children of "Authoritatives" and "Authoritarians" were twice as likely to wear seatbelts, but only half as likely to speed.

The rules here aren't complicated, and it's safe to assume that every 16-year-old knows them: wear your seat belt. Don't drink under the influence. Don't text from behind the wheel. But the difference is that for certain teens, these aren't abstract words from a public service announcement. They are absolute rules of the house. And it is those teens who appear to have the highest chance of surviving their second decade of life.

By virtue of the fact that you're reading a parenting blog, most of you are involved parents, and I'd like to hear it from you: How do you structure driving rules in your house to minimize the risk of tragedy?

By Brian Reid |  September 28, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Safety , Teens
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Don't *drink* under the influence?

Posted by: crayolasunset | September 28, 2009 7:54 AM | Report abuse

"By virtue of the fact that you're reading a parenting blog, most of you are involved parents"

How do you know?

Posted by: jezebel3 | September 28, 2009 7:57 AM | Report abuse

Don't drink under the influence might be pretty good advice.

My kid is only two and I already dread the day he starts driving.

I also wonder whether the results of the study are really due to the kids emulating the driving style of the parents - parents who enforce rules are more likely to follow the rules - wearing their seatbelts, not speeding, etc. While parents who are loose with the rules for the kids are more likely to view rules/laws as "suggestions." The kids see how their parents drive and then they drive that way too.

Posted by: VaLGaL | September 28, 2009 8:31 AM | Report abuse

two words: driving contract

google 'driving contract' and you'll find a slew of them out there. Set up the rules ahead of time, set up the ramification ahead of time so noone can say 'you didn't tell me'. There is also no arguments: you do the crime, you do the time. I found driving contracts to be rather comprehensive, while also being flexible. You can rewrite, add/subtract to suit your particular situation. For example, I added a clause stating if anyone say my son doing something improper and told me about it, then it was the same as a police officer. A neighbor saw an incomplete stop and told me. No arguments and the keys were handed over. Son is now away in college and still laughs over how he is sure the whole town was watching him and how careful he had to be. And that's the point.

Posted by: dottedone | September 28, 2009 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Son is now away in college and still laughs over how he is sure the whole town was watching him and how careful he had to be. And that's the point.

Posted by: dottedone | September 28, 2009 8:53 AM | Report abuse

What does your son do behind closed doors?

Posted by: jezebel3 | September 28, 2009 8:57 AM | Report abuse

jezebel3 - what does closed doors have to do with driving? Are you driving through closed doors as a personal hobby?

Posted by: dottedone | September 28, 2009 9:01 AM | Report abuse

Um, just wanted to point out that you can set all the rules and be an excellent parent with well-raised children and kids can still make driving mistakes. Because they are teenagers with raging hormones.

My nephew - a polite, hard working, teenager with good grades - was clocked going well over 100 mph a few years ago on back roads. Despite my sister and BIL setting all sorts of rules and being very watchful.

When asked why he was going that fast, he just held his head in his hands and said "I don't know - I knew it was stupid, but I did it anyway."

He was lucky - no one was hurt, his license was suspended for a while, there's no criminal record, he had to do some public service (including giving talks at local schools about how stupid he was...including his own school) and he is now a much safer driver.

But if you had looked at the way my sister and her husband raised their kids, there was nothing that screamed "permissive parents" or "their kids are going to be wrapped around a tree". They were definitely "Authoritative" in this context - a lot of it boils down to individual teenage stupidity in the end. And we were all guilty of it in one form or another, so we know it's true.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | September 28, 2009 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Chasmosaur1 - so true. All you can really do is not make it so easy... It is all part of growing up and out, isn't it?

Posted by: dottedone | September 28, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Last week I saw my 18 year old nephew (on his 18th birthday!) pulled over with another car and 2 Deputies, not knowing what was going on I called my SIL - she already knew everything. My nephew bumped the guy in front of him and immediately called his parents. My SIL kind of laughed, but I reminded her my parents got calls or "mentions" from neighbors about us kids all the time. It probably saved our lives, to be honest.

As for rules, yes, set them, talk about them, enforce them and maintain civility and respect. Teenagers are not hard wired yet, lots of kinks to still be worked out - they will do wacky things (like driving 100 mph) and hopefully they will get caught and taught a lesson. Lots of prayers help too.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | September 28, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

The stats don't claim 100% of parenting style = x, so many of us are going to have friends, cousins, kids, etc who don't fit the bill here. On the other hand, this IS a study that's worth considering, because the effects here are HUGE and death by car accident is a big deal. So, yeah, driving contracts are a really smart idea.

Posted by: atb2 | September 28, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

DSD has been raised to believe as long as she didn't mean it, it wasn't her fault. And rules were written for "normal" kids, not kids like her (ADHD). So it strikes fear in me that one day she will be driving if she doesn't understand that she has to follow the rules of the road and she is responsible for what she does in the car. We work with her mother, but with every other weekend contact, there isn't enough we can do to ensure she's a safe driver.

Posted by: StrollerMomma | September 28, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

STrollermama - not to encourage or discourage you, but this behavior will likely play out *way* before licensure.

Posted by: dottedone | September 28, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Something to think about with younger son. At 12, he's been interested in driving for at least a couple of years already.

Older son is exactly the opposite of neurotypical teens. He's 17, a senior in high school, and has absolutely NO interest in learning to drive. I signed him up for an on-line driver education course more than two years ago. He's gotten through about 1/4 of it, and only that much because I've dragged him to the computer each time, and forced him to work through a lesson.

It's all about the safety/dangers of driving for him. He wants to follow the rules, but even more he wants to be safe. And those driver ed lessons are all about the risks and dangers - guess they're trying to get through to the "normal" kids.

I'd really like to get him to start driving himself, and stop depending on his dad and me to get him around. We don't want to become the clique - the autistic in his 40's or 50's who's still living with mom and dad until they pass on and leave him rudderless and without resources or skills to live the rest of his life alone. Driving is a big step towards independence, getting work, getting his own home/apartment, etc.

Still, younger son will likely give us the *typical* experiences of parenting a teen, when his turn comes. I can almost look forward to that.

Posted by: SueMc | September 28, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Dottedone - are you the same "dotted" from the old "on Balance" blog?

Posted by: emily8 | September 28, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

"If you look at death rates, they are comforting low between 1 year and 14 years before absolutely skyrocketing...largely a result of automobiles."

This is the problem with your whole crusade to be "data-driven" - you've spun the data one way, I'll spin it another.

I'll put aside the imprecision of your conclusion about the cause "automobiles", and just assume you meant to write auto accidents. But what do the data actually tell us? Not much, (especially because the age subsets are so broad, namely 5-14 and 15-24) but certainly not that the increase in death rates is due "largely" to auto accidents.

Ages 5-14:
1,453 auto accident deaths
390 homicides
219 suicides
805 other accidents

Ages 15-24:
11,392 auto accident deaths
5717 homicides
4189 suicides
4837 other accidents

People are more likely to be killed as they get older not largely because of automobiles, but largely because they become adults, exposed to a whole range of adult things that are more likely to get them killed. Auto accidents kill more people than any other single cause through both age ranges, but other causes become more deadly collectively, as auto accidents diminish as a percentage of all deaths.

Posted by: 06902 | September 28, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

I was your proverbial goody two-shoes teenager (never got in big trouble, good grades, respectful, authoritative parents that I obeyed, etc) and it is only by the grace of God that I am alive and did not harm anyone else as a teenage driver...Not only was I really bad at it, but I also drove way too fast, with too many other kids in the car, and took terrible risks. Thank goodness this was in the days before cell phones because I can honestly see myself as one of those "don't text and drive" statistics.

Sue, you bring up an interesting point about your 17 yo and it's something I've noticed recently that I wonder is a an educator, aunt, and neighbor, I can name off the top of my head right now almost a dozen teenagers (in different communities) who are totally content to be chaufferred around and have made no effort towards drivers' education/license. It is puzzling to me because my friends and I counted the days to 16 and went to take our tests that morning! It was a huge deal. These kids for whatever reason are simply uninterested in driving themselves and seem fine with the status quo of having to ask mom and dad or bum rides from a friend. Their lack of desire for independence in this way is startling to me. Sue for your son, this makes sense to me, but these kids are what you call "neurotypical". I've wondered if it isn't related to the helicoptering their parents may have done in their early years with the emphasis on safety to the exclusion of all else.

Posted by: auntieW | September 28, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

emily - yep... How's it going???? aka dotted

Posted by: dottedone | September 28, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Interesting notion, helicopter parents = kids with no desire to grow up.

I don't know how well it applies though. I've known a fair number of teens (now adults) who got around fine using public transit - it's very good here in the SF Bay Area, maybe the best in the country - and didn't want or need a driver's license even after moving out of their parents' home.

Their parents generally didn't "helicopter", (thinking of some of my parenting mentors) but they made it clear to their kid(s) that they'd have to pay for their own insurance and gas if they wanted to use the family car. "With privileges come responsibilities..." etc.

These bright youngsters then looked at the costs, and decided they would rather spend their hard-earned money in other ways. And many of them also didn't want to add to greenhouse gas emissions, and opted for public transit for that reason too.

I certainly wanted my license ASAP when I turned 16. But I was living in a semi-rural area, and there was no way to get around except by car. If I were growing up today in the city, I doubt I'd care much either. I definitely prefer *not* to drive for my commute - between gas prices, bridge tolls, and parking costs in SF's financial district, even if I *loved* driving in heavy traffic (which I emphatically don't!), I prefer to save myself $2-300 each month.

Maybe sometimes it's simply a case of a smart kid making a smart financial decision, or an environmentally motivated decision?

Posted by: SueMc | September 28, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse

As a parent, I hope to diminish the odds that my child will die from any of the categories listed in the study. Deaths from car accidents increased almost 8 fold while other accidents increased only 6 fold between age groups. My kids are 10 and 12 years old and I have already had several conversations about rules of the road. Will it make a difference, who knows? I hope so, but the expectations are clear.

Posted by: NotasCompetitive | September 28, 2009 7:55 PM | Report abuse

DH and I are already fighting re: buying kid(s) cars when they get licenses.
Sue: if other kids are taking mass transit, why not teach yours to?
We live in a city - one reason is that things are close by. Soon enough the kids will be able to 'wander' the neighborhood themselves. And take the bus. If they want a car, they can buy one themselves.
I don't know yet re: the driving. We'll see, I guess. The older kid is already a rules follower, so we'll see if that follows to cars. I would not be the permissive parent for that, I know. no way.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | September 28, 2009 10:27 PM | Report abuse

Here in the UK there is a very powerful video that was released to inform teenagers about the dangers of driving and texting. I highly recommend it to the parents that I coach and I made my teenage son who is turning 17 next month watch it too

Sue Atkins
Author of "Raising Happy Children for Dummies"

Posted by: sue18 | September 29, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Sue: if other kids are taking mass transit, why not teach yours to?

Posted by: atlmom1234 | September 28, 2009 10:27 PM

We've been arguing with the school district and with the regional center since older son was a freshman. Each says that the other is responsible for teaching disabled students to use mass transit.

I can't take a month off from work, and take on the task. I'm out of the house in the morning about the same time that older son is out of the shower. And I'm not home in the evening until about two hours after the boys are.

DH can't take on the mass transit training either, unless he completely abandons his responsibility to get younger son to and from school for a month.

At this point, we're getting ready to hammer on the school district again - the transitions services includes jobs training and "skills training" necessary to holding employment, and I think we can make a good argument that learning to use public transit is a necessary skill to get to and from work.

But I'd still like to get older son to drive. He wants to move out of the SF Bay Area - probably to LA - and pursue voice and acting work. In LA (or nearly anywhere else in the country) he'll be much more likely to need a car, and not be able to use public transit for everywhere he might need or want to go.

Posted by: SueMc | September 29, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

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