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Teen Driving and the Holidays: A Parent's Guide

You may be hearing, "Mom, where are the car keys?" a lot, particularly around the holidays, as teens and young adults make plans to meet up with friends and go to parties. As a parent and a pediatrician, I feel conflicted when asked for the car keys.
12/19/2014 12:24pm ET | Updated February 18, 2015
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Your teen passes his or her driving test and, at that moment, the world opens up. They can drive themselves to school and hang out with friends without your direct supervision. It is a celebrated milestone in their lives and yours as well. Your child is growing up, taking on more responsibility and beginning to move into adulthood.

You may be hearing, "Mom, where are the car keys?" a lot, particularly around the holidays, as teens and young adults make plans to meet up with friends and go to parties. As a parent and a pediatrician, I feel conflicted when asked for the car keys. On one hand, I am proud that my child is driving (and relieved that there is one less carpool for me to schedule into my day). On the other hand, I know the statistics, and I admit that I worry about the safety of my child. I trust my teen, but bad things can happen on the road, particularly to inexperienced drivers. Sometimes all it takes is one lapse in judgment or a single distraction. And often I find myself even more anxious when my child is a passenger and another teen is driving.

Why do I worry? The statistics:

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in 2012, over 2,800 U.S. teens died from injuries sustained in car crashes, and over half of the teen passengers who died in crashes were being driven by another teen. Those of us in medicine know that motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of mortality among adolescents and young adults, with the risk of motor vehicle crashes higher among 16 to 19-year-olds than among any other age group. In fact, per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are three times more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash.

There are many reasons why teens face an increased risk of traffic accidents. Inexperience is a huge factor, and many accidents occur in the first few months after licensure. Teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate dangerous situations, and they tend to allow shorter headways (the distance between two vehicles), making a crash harder to avoid. Teens are also more likely than older drivers to speed, and they are less likely to wear seatbelts, according to the National Highway Safety Administration. In 2009, 56% of teens killed in motor vehicle crashes were unbuckled.

However, driving after drinking alcohol is one of the most alarming (and preventable) reasons for young people to be involved in motor vehicle collisions.

What can a parent do?

  1. Talk often. I know I say this over and over again, but I like to stress Zero Tolerance -- it is easy for anyone to understand. Absolutely no alcohol can be present in the bloodstream of any driver under age 21 in all 50 states. Period, end of discussion. Teens often view the world in black and white and this is, indeed, quite clear.

  • Be aware of risky driving conditions. Discuss with your young driver that driving conditions will be particularly hazardous during the holiday season -- especially for young, inexperienced drivers (snow, ice, rain, poor visibility, etc.). Another risky driving time is New Year's Eve, when other drivers on the road may have been drinking. Try to keep your child out of the driver's seat during these times (and out of the passenger seat if there is an inexperienced young person at the wheel).
  • Talk about all distractions. Whether it is texting, putting on or changing music or talking to a friend in the back seat, teens are easily distracted, and because they are inexperienced drivers, they are less likely to have developed proper driving reflexes. Set the standard by not calling or texting your child if you know they are behind the wheel.
  • Remember that it's not just the teen driver who is at risk. If your child is not driving, find out who is. Teen passengers are also at risk, particularly if the friend who is driving has had something to drink.
  • Be Available. If you suspect that drinking may occur, clearly communicate that you are available and willing to provide a safe ride home (and either pick your child up, or offer a car service) -- no questions asked.
  • Model safe driving. That may mean that you cannot drink alcohol at a holiday party if you are the driver, even if you feel that you are only drinking a little and that your driving skills are not affected. Teens are very sensitive to all the actions of adults in their environment, and they may get the message that it is okay to drink and drive if you do it.
  • Learn to say no. Yes, it may be easier to give in and let your child drive, but if you have concerns, trust your intuition and say no if he or she asks to drive.
  • If you have any doubts, volunteer to do the driving yourself. Inconvenient? Probably -- but much, much safer in the end.
  • Have a safe and happy holiday season!