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Set Limits to Keep Your Teen Driver Safe

Handing the car keys to your newly licensed son or daughter is a milestone. But while your teen celebrates new independence, you face new worries.

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for 16- to 20-year-olds, claiming about 5,500 lives a year. Younger teens who have been licensed for less than a year face the highest risk for a road crash. Nonetheless, parents can take steps to keep teen drivers safe, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Strategies for parents are outlined in The Teen Driver, a NHTSA policy statement.

Driving accidents can happen to any teen, not just risk-takers. "Oftentimes, the issue is just inexperience," says Phoenix pediatrician Jeffrey Weiss, M.D., lead author of The Teen Driver. "There are no magic words to make a teen drive like an adult. But by setting rules, parents can make a dramatic difference in preventing crashes."

Here's some advice:

  • When in doubt, say no. Your teen may feel entitled to a driver's license at 16, but the decision is yours. If your teen lacks maturity or responsibility, waiting is best.

  • Set some rules. "Two things to focus on are nighttime driving and driving with teenage passengers," Dr. Weiss says. Accidents involving young drivers often happen between 9 p.m. and midnight. Crash rates go up when another teen rides along. The AAP urges rules (now law in some states) that forbid night driving and driving with teens or younger siblings for at least six months. Other things to ban: using a cell phone or eating while driving.

  • Impose consequences. Reckless driving, not wearing a seatbelt, speeding, or driving while intoxicated are serious offenses. Consider suspending your teen's driving privileges as a penalty.

  • Provide a safe car. Get any potential vehicle inspected for safety. Lap/shoulder belts and air bags are a must.

  • Be a role model. "Studies show that when a parent has a bad driving record, their kids generally do too," Dr. Weiss says. Make sure you drive the speed limit, wear your seat belt, and never drink and drive.