The top cause of adolescent deaths? Car crashes. (Cue to AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" — a parent's worst nightmare.)
The biggest culprits: speeding, drinking alcohol, not using safety belts, and being distracted, according to the first annual teen driving research report released this week by The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance Companies.
To lower the odds of disaster, set strict guidelines and explain them. "The rules are there for safety — not to squelch their independence," says emergency room physician Dennis Durbin, co-scientific director of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Center for Injury Research and Prevention and the father of a newly licensed 17-year-old daughter. "Do it in the context of support, not because 'I'm trying to limit your freedom.'" After all, you're simply trying to lessen the odds of a crash.
The rules should help protect your own kids — and the nation's nearly 10 million other licensed teens (not to mention pedestrians, cyclists, passengers, and adult drivers). Here's a motivating statistic: in a single year, 681,000 people were in crashes involving a teen driver behind the wheel, according to the report by The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm.
Researchers recommend setting firm house rules for new drivers. "Allow the teen to gain initial driving experience under low-risk conditions," says Durbin. Some tips:
No teen passengers at first. During their first six months behind the wheel, young drivers are at "exceptionally high risk of crashing," says Durbin.
A curfew. Make it tougher than your state's requirement.
A zero-tolerance alcohol policy. Forty percent of teens who died had been drinking, according to the new research report.
Safety belt use. More than half of teens who died were not buckled up.
Obeying the speed limit. More than half of teens who died were going too fast.
No cell phones. Set a good example yourself. Pull over if you must talk.
No nighttime driving at first. It's riskier.
No unfamiliar, high-speed roads at first. Gradually add trickier terrain.
Make sure your teens' friends know your tough rules. (Go ahead — be the bad guy.) And create a code word for your kids to text or say to you if they're in trouble. For more tips, see www.teendriversource.org.
Sometimes teens need to remember that driving is a privilege. "Being 16 does not give you a right to a license," says psychologist Thomas Merrill, co-author of Settle for More. "You can remain loving and set boundaries. Kids need to surrender to cooperation."
Make the rules non-negotiable. Your teens "are not emancipated yet," says Bobbie Sandoz-Merrill, author of Parachutes for Parentsand co-author (with her husband, Merrill) of Settle for More. "You can always take those keys."
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