Last week I went to Kansas on a 5-day business trip and returned home to find that my son had turned 17 and obtained his driver’s license. Now, I knew these milestones were going to occur (at least the first was guaranteed), but it seems like only yesterday that he finished driver training, secured his permit and started supervised practice driving. (My parents weren’t kidding when they said the older you get, the faster time goes!)
Now that my one and only child has his probationary driver license (that’s the second phase of New Jersey’s Graduated Driver License or GDL program), he’s permitted to drive without supervision but must be off the road between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., may transport only one passenger (unless my husband or I are in the car), and can’t use any electronic devices (hand-held or hands-free). Additionally, if there is another passenger in the vehicle, he’s responsible for ensuring that both he and this individual are buckled up. Those are the minimum requirements under our GDL law.
Our family has agreed, however, that more stringent rules are in order. No it’s not that my husband and I don’t trust our son. In fact, he has never given us a reason not to trust him. But he’s a brand new driver and like other teens who are newly licensed, his crash risk right now is the highest it will ever be in this lifetime. According to AAA, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the National Safety Council, the Centers for Disease Control, and many other safety and research-based organizations, the first 30 days of independent driving are the deadliest for teens and remain high through the first six to 12 months of licensure.
So what’s a mother, who also happens to have worked in traffic safety for the past 25 years and leads the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition, to do? Let him drive, after all that’s how new drivers build experience and skill. But my husband and I will remain fully engaged in this process and take advantage of every opportunity to continue to coach and drive with him. Just like his ice hockey coach, we’ll be there to assist him in perfecting his game so that he becomes a good driver for life.
We’ve also entered into a driving agreement with our son that clearly spells out the rules and responsibilities associated with his new found privilege. It’s not a complicated, multi-page document, but a clear and succinct statement of what he’s expected to abide by over the next 12 months. We didn’t dictate the terms, rather we came to a consensus around the kitchen table and our son then typed up the one-page document. All three of us signed the agreement, which is now posted on the fridge. (There are a myriad of sample parent-teen agreements online. We referred to one developed by the Allstate Foundation for guidance.)
What’s in the document? He may not carry any passengers for at least the first 30 days (we don’t want him to be responsible for anyone but himself), he must return home after work or a sporting event (which will be before the 11 p.m. curfew), and he may not use any electronics in the car (even his iPod). He’s also required to notify us once he arrives at his destination (and to alert us if that destination changes), to immediately contact the police (then one of us) if he’s involved in a crash, to pull over to a place of safety and ask for directions if he gets lost or to call AAA if he needs roadside assistance. (I encourage every parent with a roadside assistance plan to add their teen).
The agreement also addresses what happens if he gets a ticket (he’ll respect that the ticket is his responsibility and that his driving privileges will be rescinded for a minimum of one week), that he needs to ask permission to use a car and fill the tank as needed, that he must monitor his speed (the driving examiner, just like mom, picked up on his lead-foot tendency), and that he should never drive tired or drowsy. And the agreement also spells out the importance of contacting one of us if he ever feels uncomfortable about driving (or riding as a passenger in someone else’s car) and needs us to pick him up -- no questions asked.
Some parents might think we’re being over-protective, but as I’ve said repeatedly to my peers at teen driving education programs I facilitate at my son’s high school and other settings across the state, “I’ve only got one child, and he’s not disposable.” Think about this way, as parents we’ve done everything in our power (and that money can buy) to nurture, clothe, inoculate, educate, feed, and protect our kids for the first 16 years of their life. So why once our teens turn 17 and obtain a driver license would we just throw them the keys and wish them luck?
Knowing that car crashes are the number one killer of teens in our state and nation (not because they’re bad drivers, they’re simply inexperienced), my husband and I going to do everything possible to ensure our son isn’t another statistic. To put it bluntly, we want a return on our investment and to ensure that he achieves a lifetime of milestones.