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Want a Safe Teen Driver? Parents Behind Wheel of Kids' Behavior, Study Shows

Want your teen to be a safe driver? Practice what your preach. A new study finds that parents influence how their teens behave behind the wheel.

Imagine hiring a retired or off-duty police officer to covertly follow your teen driver around making note of his bad driving habits.  Sound a bit extreme?  Not according to Quest Driving Safety (Quest), who for just $99 will conduct a 15-20 minute evaluation of how a teen is doing and provide the information to his parents.  The service, says CEO Gary Lawrence, record things that insurance or Internet-supplied GPS units can’t record. 

The service isn’t just for teens. Quest will also follow senior and fleet drivers.  A large portion of the senior business comes from families who live far away and can’t monitor their  family member’s driving ability.  This accounts for about 30 percent of the firm’s business, while the bulk of it is teens.

I learned about this service, which I’m not a fan of (more on that later), just a few days after Toyota Motor Sales, USA and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) released the preliminary findings of a national study of teen drivers (ages 16-18) and their parents.  The study shows a significant correlation between parent and teen behaviors behind the wheel, suggesting the former can play an influential role in modeling risky behavior on the road. 

Commenting on the connection noted in the study between parent and teen driving behavior, Dr. Tina Sayer, CSRC Principal Engineer and teen safe driving expert, said, “Driver education begins the day a child’s car seat is turned around to face front.  As the study shows, the actions parents take, and by extension, the expectation they set for [their teen] drivers each day are powerful factors in encouraging safe behavior behind the wheel.  Seat belts and good defensive driving skills are critical.  However, the one piece of advice I would give parents to help them keep newly licensed drivers safe on the road... is to always be the driver you want your teen to be.”

I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Sayer, whose findings are also supported by the work of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  Children model their parents’ behavior, so what we do day in and day out, including behind the wheel, will influence what our kids do as they progress through adolescence, their teen years and into adulthood. 

As a safe driving advocate who leads the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition and the parent of a teen driver, I’m well aware of the impact my husband and I have on our son’s behavior both as a driver and passenger.  From always buckling up and never using a cell phone, to obeying the rules of the road and sharing the road, it’s up to us to lead by example.

That brings me back to spying on new drivers.  Parent who opt to take advantage of Quest’s service receive a parent-teen driving agreement.  They’re encouraged to review the form with their teen as well as advise them of the pending evaluation.  While  I’m a fan of parent-teen agreements (our family has one and it clearly spells out the ground rules for driving and the consequences if our son violates them), I think coupling it with the evaluation screams, “we don’t trust you.”

Instead of paying for what amounts to a covert operation, particularly if you don’t divulge what you’re doing, why not spend more time driving with your teen?  Just because your teen has been granted a drivers license, doesn’t mean he or she is no longer a driver in training (CHOP research confirms that it takes at least 1,000 miles of driving for a teen’s crash risk to drop and even then it’s twice that of older drivers until about age 25).

Our son has been licensed since mid-August, but there are still times when my husband and/or I are in the car with him.  While we’ve seen tremendous improvement in his ability to control the vehicle, scan and share the road, and make maneuvering decisions, our novice driver is still honing his skills and will benefit from continued coaching. 

Couple that ongoing coaching with a bit of introspection and self-improvement by parents nationwide—correcting what we are doing as drivers that we certainly don’t want our teens to do—and it could have a profound impact on our teens’  ability to survive their most dangerous driving years.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Kris Hintz December 04, 2012 at 01:16 PM
Great article. I especially love your discussion of setting a good example in the way you drive, from the time that your kids are little. Reminds me of the Robert Fulghum quote: “Don't worry that your children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.” Our son has been driving for five years now, and I must say, he's a better driver than I am! So there is light at the end of the tunnel. Some of the things that helped our son: We have a tractor lawn mower, and we gave him the task of mowing since he was eleven. That helped make driving second nature (i.e., turning radius, missing obstacles, basic judgment). We also got him a GPS immediately after he got his license, so that he would never have an accident because he was lost. And we got him a red mini-cooper, so that if he was ever tempted to drive too fast, it would be a red flag to cops, who would stop him before it became dangerous. Driving a lot with your kid does make sense, if the "backseat driving" urge doesn't drive you both crazy. Pick your battles. Thanks for a great article!
Pam Fischer December 04, 2012 at 02:17 PM
Kris, I have to agree that exposing your child to driving via operation of the lawn tractor is a good way to help him develop basic vehicle control skills. I grew up on a farm in Central PA and my siblings and I were not only driving the lawn tractor, but other vehicles at an early age and it certainly had an impact.
Edward P. Campbell December 04, 2012 at 02:21 PM
We Don’t Trust You? It is not a question of trust. It is a question of being a parent. To me, your statement about trust is nothing more than a cop-out that says – I’m too busy to brother with you son, so I trust you to do the right thing! Remember if he is still 17 you are talking to a child, who isn’t even legally allowed to sign a simple contract, and you are going to “trust” him with a 4,000 pound automobile and the intense peer pressure that surrounds and influences youngsters of that age? REALLY? Do you think these parents “trusted” this driver? He or she drove around a car that had already stopped at a train crossing, through the red flashing lights, and then all 5 of them paid the ultimate price. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaUM0opLHA0 My Opinion. Your job as a parent is NOT to trust your child, until they mature to the point of knowing just how fragile life can be! Again in my mind, using Quest Driving Safety, or someone similar is good, no make that great parenting.
Hookerman December 04, 2012 at 03:24 PM
Yeah right Edward... are you telling me that when you were first driving, YOUR parents hired a firm to follow you around to make sure you were driving safely??? If if they had, you would have considered it a reasonable parental method at the time? Being a responsible parent is one thing…. being a neurotic ‘helicopter’ parent is another. The best method (as the article points out) is to lead by example. I best most of the parents who hire this Quest firm drive around while talking on their cell phones most of the time.
Edward P. Campbell December 04, 2012 at 07:12 PM
My parents? My parents do something like that? No way. That might have indicated they actually cared!
Joe D. December 08, 2012 at 04:19 PM
Having a brand new licensed driver, this couldn't have been more appropriate! Today I let my child drive alone for the first time-just to the other side of town. Although as parents we're ringing our hands until he comes back safe, he has to start somewhere. As he sees the gift of independence, his desire to take the care, will only increase. But I couldn't agree more, that he is still learning, and quite frankly, so are we, as adults! I'll make it a "date" to go out at least once a week with him to make sure he is not making any unfavorable "habits".
Pam Fischer December 08, 2012 at 09:04 PM
Yes, you'll wring your hands (we did and still do), but you do have to let them go. The key, as you note, is to make the time to keep driving with them and to stay involved in helping develop this new skill.

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