Buckle up, parents of teen drivers and soon-to-be-teen drivers, you’re in for a bumpy ride.
That rite of passage of learning to drive, getting a license and hitting the road is even more complicated than when you were a teen — and for good reason. Motor vehicle accidents are the No. 1 cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds, and teen drivers are three times more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers 21 and older, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The summer months are the most dangerous times for teen drivers, with more teen driver fatalities happening in June, July and August than in other months. It’s also the time when driver education classes fill up and drivers-in-training hit the road.
We asked law enforcement officers, insurance agents and a driver’s training school owner for their advice on getting through the licensing process, helping teens become good drivers and what ground rules to set for better peace of mind.
Getting a license
This isn’t something a teen can do quickly. Texas has a graduated driver license program, which means a teen goes from a learner license (aka permit) to a provisional license to a regular license at age 18. The rules of what has to be done to go from learner to provisional will change Sept. 1, when a recently signed bill goes into effect.
Before getting the learner license, you have to decide whether you are going to send your teen to a driver education school or do parent-taught driver education. If you start parent-taught driver education, you have to see it through completion or start over. You, as a parent, also can’t have a bad driving record, have had your license suspended, revoked or forfeited in the last three years or have been convicted of driving while intoxicated or homicide. You also have to buy an approved education course and keep diligent records of what your child learns.
While the cheaper option (anywhere from $20-$150, compared with $390 and up for schools), the parent-taught program “is often considered more difficult …” says State Trooper Robbie Barrera. “It takes a great deal of time and patience from both the student and the parent. The responsibility lies with the parent to ensure the program is properly administered and followed.” That being said, it can be done — Barrera taught her own daughter.
Your teen can start the 32-hour classroom phase of either program at age 14, but cannot take the test for a learner license until 15. Barbara Hardy, co-owner of Longhorn Driving Schools with husband Mike, recommends teens start the classroom portion at 14½ to give them more time with a learner permit.
The classroom instruction also can’t be done for more than two hours a day. Teens need the first six hours to take the written test for the learner license. When applying for the learner license, you’ll have to prove your child is a citizen and have a verification of enrollment form, which is only valid for 30 days, to show he or she is in school.
Once a teen has a learner license, he or she has to have it for at least six months and turn 16 to become eligible for a provisional license.
To get the provisional license, the 32 hours of classroom instruction must be completed as well as seven hours of behind-the-wheel instruction and seven hours of driving observation given by the driving instructor or the parent who is doing parent-taught driver education.
The driving isn’t done. Beginning Sept. 1, a teen with a learner license has to have an additional 30 hours of behind-the-wheel driving instruction with a parent or responsible adult, including 10 hours of nighttime driving. This is a change from the current requirement of 20 hours, including 10 at night.
Once completing the provisional license requirements, a teen can then apply for that license and take the driving test.
The provisional license comes with restrictions. Currently anyone younger than 18 cannot use a cellphone while driving, and for the first 12 months of having a provisional license, a teen cannot drive between midnight and 5 a.m. unless required by work or school or a medical emergency. The teen also cannot have more than one passenger in the vehicle who is younger than 21 years and not a family member. Come Sept. 1, these provisional license rules will continue not just in the first 12 months, but until the driver turns 18.
Parents also can put other restrictions on teens’ licenses that are legally binding such as “to and from school only” or “daylight hours only” or “no passenger permitted.” Parents also can have the learner license or provisional license canceled at any time.
Once your teen goes from learner license to provisional license, he or she will have to have insurance, too.
If your child skipped this whole process and is now older than 18 but younger than 25, Texas requires a six-hour course that can be done online, but not any behind-the-wheel training.
This process can be confusing. Check www.txdps.state.tx.us for all the requirements and forms before you head to the driver license office.
More than a license
Helping your child get a license is just part of your job as a parent. You can do more things to reinforce safety behind the wheel.
First, be the good example. “Our kids mimic us …,” Barrera says. “If you don’t comply with all the laws, how do you expect your child to follow all the laws?”
That means that because teens can’t legally use cellphones while driving, maybe you shouldn’t either. Ford recently did a study of 500 teenagers and their parents and found that 28 percent of the parents used their cellphones while driving, compared with only 20 percent of teens.
While you might think to talk to your children about texting while driving, don’t forget to talk to them about “webbing” while driving. That’s the term for surfing the Internet, checking Facebook or Twitter or reading or writing emails while driving or at a stoplight. A recent State Farm study found that one in five of drivers were doing so.
Also talk to your child about distractions. In that same Ford study, 61 percent of teens said they ate or drank while driving, 51 percent listened to an iPod and 42 percent listened to the radio loud enough not to be able to hear nearby vehicles.
And 62 percent said they were distracted by others in the car. Even though in Texas, teens younger than 18 are only allowed one person younger than 21 and not related to them in the car, that one person or multiple siblings can be distracting. One person in the car with them increases the risk of a crash by 48 percent and that risk grows with each passenger, to more than 307 percent with three or more passengers. How will your teen handle these distractions?
Practice also makes better. During the first six months to 12 months and the first 1,000 miles driven, a teen has the highest crash risk. Continue to drive with your teens even after they have provisional licenses. You can add devices to cars or use apps that will limit or monitor speed, set volume of the radio or even remind them to buckle up or fill up the tank.
Remember, as a parent you get to set limits. Introduce driving privileges gradually as your teens prove they can handle more responsibility.
Share a car with them. Teens who have their own cars are twice as likely to be involved in a crash than teens who share a car with a family member.
No seat belt, no driving. Teen boys have the lowest rates of seat belt use. Reinforce the rules. It’s state law, after all, and 53 percent of teen drivers and passengers killed in Texas in 2009 were not wearing their seat belts.
Nothing good happens after midnight, right? Well, nothing good happens before either. A teen’s risk of a fatal accident is highest in the evening hours. Set curfew hours and stick with them. Some research on teen car accidents has shown 10 p.m. is a good time to be home by.
Even though you think your kids know not to drink and drive, you can never say it enough. Have a policy that you will pick them up wherever they are, no questions asked. And stick to it.
Your children will get pulled over or in an accident. Teach them what to do and how to talk to a police officer or the other driver even if they don’t think they did something wrong. “Be respectful, be cooperative,” says Ausin Police Department spokesman Jermaine Kilgore. “The side of the road is not the time to get into it with an officer.”
Many insurance companies and automobile manufacturers have online programs to help reinforce safe practices. State Farm is giving out 10 $100,000 grants and 90 $25,000 grants for schools that have signed up for its Celebrate My Drive program to encourage safe driving among teens. Ford’s Driving Skills for Life program has online curriculum including games and tips.
You also can use your insurance agent as a resource. State Farm agent Brent Allen likes to show teens what the rates are now; what they will be with discounts for having good grades or completing a driver training program or State Farm’s Steer Clear program; and what they would be if they got into an accident or two accidents or got a ticket.
And yes, it’s true, boys are more expensive to insure than girls, but the rates do decrease with each birthday and with each year of good driving. Rates will vary widely depending on the car and the kid but some teens might only be 15 percent more than their parents, some might be twice as high, Allen says.
Don’t be afraid to take the license or the keys away. You’d rather have angry kids than kids who endanger themselves or others by being reckless drivers.