Knowing Your Role

Believe it or not, your teen’s safety behind the wheel starts with you. Learn why staying focused and being a role model can help your teen stay safe on the road.

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What is Your Role?

As a parent, you have a bigger impact on your teen’s driving than anyone else. Learn how being a role model can help your teen
be safe behind the wheel.

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What Is Your Role?

What role do you play in your teen’s safety behind the wheel?

Right now, your teen’s driving is influenced more by you than anyone else. Take every opportunity you can to talk to your teen about the seriousness of driving, and the skills and attitudes that are necessary to guarantee their success. And don’t forget – they are watching everything you do behind the wheel. Your job is to pass on your experience and knowledge to your teen in a positive way so you can help reinforce their positive driving habits. In the end, no matter how much coaching or education you give to your teen, they will eventually drive just like you.

Here are a few things you can do:


Be a positive role model when you’re behind the wheel.


When in doubt, do your research! We hope our site, among others, can help provide information on driving specifics when you find there’s something you want clarified or explained.


Set aside time every week devoted to just teaching your teen to drive. Don’t do it on the way to a place you both need to be, but devote the time to teaching, practical exercises, and lessons to make them identify the right driving decisions and behaviors.

How do you become a better role model? 

The best instruction you can give your teen is your own behavior. Be the kind of driver you want your teen to be. And as a result, maybe your own driving habits will improve. After all, teens start learning to drive the moment their car seat faces forward. They will imitate your driving habits, good and bad. It's never too late for all of us to work on safer driving habits. Show your teen that all of us need to treat driving as a serious responsibility. And not just when you're learning, but for life.

Your role also is to coach, which will require endless patience. By remaining calm and showing that you care about and love them, you will improve your "working" relationship with your teen.

Which of your own driving qualities do you most want your teen to emulate? 

Why? Do you practice defensive driving? Are you obeying all traffic laws? Are you avoiding aggressive behaviors? If so, good job! You're setting a great example for your teen.

What driving behaviors of yours do you want your teen driver to avoid? 

Why? Do you text, talk or email on the phone while driving? Do you multi-task by putting on makeup, shaving or eating while you drive? Your teen will follow your example. Telling your teen to "do as I say, not as I do" is a weak argument and you will lose your credibility as their driving instructor.

Lastly, don't forget to point out the good things they do, not just the bad. By doing this, you reward and encourage the good behaviors and decisions, and the teen feels positive and confident behind the wheel.

Your teen’s safety starts with you.

As an adult you probably have years of experience behind the wheel, but you still need to review your own driving knowledge. Do you know your state's laws? You may need a refresher. Check your state's division of motor vehicles website for specific information.

Make sure you're aware of the distracted driving laws in your area. Visit for information. There you will find detailed state-by-state laws, as well as relevant facts.


  • Check your driving habits. Make sure you play it safe so your teen does too.
  • Don't use a phone to talk, email or text while driving
  • Don't eat or drink behind the wheel
  • Don't speed
  • Stay focused and don't drive impaired
  • Come to a complete stop at red lights and stop signs
  • Set clear boundaries about acceptable behavior for passengers
  • Check your set up behind the wheel for the correct position of the mirrors, hands on the steering wheel, and seating position


There’s also room to give your teen a “healthy paranoia” behind the wheel to make them more aware of how to be a safe but defensive driver.


  • Eyes up and visualize ahead
  • Be aware of your surroundings
  • Look out for everything
  • Create room to move
  • Be predictable


Are you ready to be a coach? You don’t need special training to teach your teen to drive, and while you may not feel prepared to take on the role of Driver’s Ed instructor, this responsibility falls on parents most of the time.

You play a vital role when your teen is learning how to drive. You may be a good driver, but you likely don't know how to teach someone else to drive. And teaching teens presents its own challenges. Try to take yourself out of the parenting role and think like a coach. What makes a good coach? Think back to those who influenced you while you were growing up. Write a list of those positive attributes and how you look up to that coach. Don’t you want to be that kind of influence on your teen? Just like you should be the kind of driver you want your teen to become, try to be the kind of driving coach you want them to have.

Before you let your teen get behind the wheel, evaluate their driving readiness. Are they ready? To find out, ask yourself these questions:

True or False:

1. My teen drives defensively and obeys all traffic laws.

    • As many as 56 percent of deadly crashes involve one or more unsafe driving behaviors typically associated with aggressive driving. (Source: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety) 

2. My teen always follows safe driving practices. They constantly check rear view and side mirrors AND look over their shoulder to make sure no one is in their blind spot.

    • About a third of all traffic deaths are a result of speeding. On average, 1,000 Americans are killed every month in speed-en never texts or talks on the phone while driving. Hands-free devices are just as dangerous as hand-held devices. Drivers who use cell phone devices are four times more likely to get into a crash serious enough to injure themselves. (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). 

3. My teen never texts or talks on the phone while driving.
    • Hands-free devices are just as dangerous as hand-held devices. Drivers who use cell phone devices are four times more likely to get into a crash serious enough to injure themselves. (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety).
4. My teen always wears a safety belt without having to be reminded.
    • Wearing a safety belt is the most effective thing you can do to protect yourself in a crash. Between 2004 and 2008 safety belts were credited with saving more than 75,000 lives. (Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

Whether you answered all True or all False to the statements above, it will be helpful to you and your teen if you make sure to do the following:


  • Establish ground rules – in the car you’re their parent AND their instructor.
  • Try not to argue with your teen when working with them gets stressful, which likely will happen.
  • Be clear – stop means stop, not slow down, etc.


Your role is to coach your teen through the basics of driving. Be specific in what you want them to do. Are you able to do the following?


  • Avoid talking down to your teen.
  • Keep it positive.
  • Avoid getting upset with your teen.
  • Pull over, stop the vehicle and cool down if feel you’re starting to lose your patience.
  • Make sure they are paying attention to what you are saying.


Emphasize good defense behind the wheel. Remember, that as you are working with your teen, you should recognize that you are both drivers. The key difference is the amount of experience that you have. Coaching is knowing what it will take to make your teen a better driver and not just pointing out what makes them a bad driver. Regardless of age or experience, all drivers will benefit from bringing their best defense to their driving. They will be safer drivers if they practice the following:


  • Avoid distractions
  • Always use safety belts
  • Never drive impaired by drugs, alcohol or sleep deprivation
  • Always leave yourself a way out of a sticky situation


Be patient with your teen. Becoming a good driver takes time. Instead of getting frustrated with your child, talk things through. If they made a mistake, ask them how they would do it differently in the future. Ask yourself:


  • Are you patient with your teen?
  • Does it take a lot for you to become aggravated?
  • Can you work with your teen over and over on the same concept/activity without becoming impatient?


Remain calm. If your teen accidently runs a stop sign tell them what they did in a matter-of-fact way. Can you do this?


  • Keep your cool in stressful driving situations.
  • Remain calm when something unexpected happens. There is a difference between reacting and responding. Reacting will often cause another reaction, but responding opens a line of communication between you and your teen.


Praise good performance. Your teen will respond much better to positive reinforcement. Ask yourself?


  • Do you offer constructive criticism?
  • Do you reinforce what your teen is doing right?
  • Do you avoid negative feedback?


Plan ahead. It’s important to have a plan in place before you start driving practice with your teen. Have a goal in mind of where you are going and what you are planning to do. Be clear with your teen about what skills you will be focusing on.

Set a good example. Your teen will imitate your driving. They will focus more on your actions than your words. Drive the way you want them to drive when you are not with them. Do this by:


  • Obeying all traffic laws.
  • Avoiding texting, emailing or talking on the phone while you are driving.
  • Avoiding aggressive behavior behind the wheel.


In some cases, you might not be the best person to coach your teen driver. If this is the case, then find a close friend or family member with whom your child has a relationship (aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc.)

The statistics for teen drivers are serious. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, accounting for 37% of all teen deaths. Teens represent 6% of the licensed driver population, but are involved in 14% of all fatal crashes. In 2000, more than 9,000 people died in crashes involving teen drivers. This includes teens, their passengers, occupants of other vehicles and others (largely pedestrians) involved in the crashes.

But, by 2007, that number had been reduced to less than 7,500. The main reason for this reduction has been the enactment of Graduated Driver Licensing laws (GDL) in most states. GDL reduces teen drivers' exposure to higher-risk situations and is designed to provide teens driving experience in low-risk situations.

A best-practice model GDL system includes seven elements:


  • A supervised driving permit period for 16-year olds of at least six months;
  • Issuance of provisional licenses, with restrictions, to teens no earlier than age 16, with the licenses to be in effect a minimum of one year;
  • Restrictions on night driving after 10 p.m. during the provisional stage; 
  • Prohibitions on passengers during the provisional stage;
  • Zero-tolerance for alcohol use with significant penalties for violators.
  • Mandatory seat belt use;
  • Prohibition on all use of cell phones while driving.


The effectiveness of GDL has been documented by research. According to a report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, when states implemented individual elements of a GDL law, reductions in fatalities would occur.  States that moved from...


  • 0 GDL components to 1 component found a 4% reduction;
  • 1 GDL component to 2 components found a 6.25% reduction;
  • 2 to 3 GDL components: 0% reduction;
  • 3 to 4 GDL components: 12% reduction;
  • 4 to 5 or more GDL components: 21% reduction


More and more states are recommending that parents or guardians increase their role in the licensing for their teen, especially with stronger GDL laws. In the end, this will make your teen a better and safer driver while mitigating the risk normally associated with first-time drivers.

Inevitably you and your teen may disagree when you are teaching them to drive.


Emphasize that the rules are in place for their safety. Be responsive. Listen to their concerns, and when appropriate, modify your expectations to fit the circumstance.


Keep your cool when a disagreement does arise. It’s important not to get into an argument while your teen is driving. Your child will be in a state of mild to moderate stress just by being behind the wheel. Adding to that stress can put you at risk for being in a crash.


Rather than lose your temper, keep it positive – use positive reinforcement instead of negative criticism. Many of us only talk about the “What” and forget to explain the “Why.” Take the time to explain “Why” it’s important to maintain great driving habits, not just what your teen is doing wrong. Give your teen a sense of purpose in developing safe driving habits.


Pull over. By stopping the vehicle and calming down you will reduce your risk of getting into a crash. This will give you a chance to discuss what your teen did (both right and wrong), and to listen to their point of view. This is a good time to talk about the dangers of driving when you’re upset.

What happens when your teen doesn't follow the set rules or breaks their pledge? The mutual driving agreement you have with your teen should spell out what happens if the rules are broken. It's a good idea to get your teen's input on what they think is a fair punishment. For example, a speeding ticket might result in the loss of driving privilege for a week or more, and having to pay for the ticket. Emphasize behavior over punishment with the mutual driving agreement serving as your back-up.

Sit down with your teen and outline your expectations and what the consequences will be if these are not met. This might include that your teen must maintain a certain GPA, be home at a specific time or follow through with specific responsibilities around the house. Just remember that as parents you can't "police" your way into good behavior.

Don’t forget to reward positive behavior. If your teen receives good grades, demonstrates defensive driving, and has a good attitude, consider giving your teen added driving privileges. Such an incentive is a win-win situation for both you and your teen.

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Your Teens Are Watching

Sure, teens may have a reputation for ignoring their parents.
But this article from The Atlantic magazine shows they’re actually paying close attention to what you do behind the wheel.


A research study conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and Toyota’s Collaborative Safety Research Center reveals that parental driving habits have a powerful influence on teenage drivers. Researchers surveyed more than 5,500 teens and parents across the country in an effort to investigate driving risks and pinpoint ways to ensure the safety of teen drivers.

“It should be a relief to parents to know that teens are still looking to them for guidance,” said Dr. Tina Sayer, principal engineer for Toyota's Collaborative Safety Research Center.

Teenagers’ first year behind the wheel is among the most dangerous in their lives, according to the National Safety Council — and research indicates that, starting with the first ride in a car, children observe how their parents drive and emulate those driving habits once they become licensed drivers.

“I definitely believe that teenagers mimic the way their parents drive,” said Kristin Weyenberg, a 17-year-old from Fairfax, Virginia. Weyenberg said that while her parents set a good example by always buckling their seatbelts, they are often less careful about phone use while driving.

For John Massone, weather conditions in his home state of Colorado meant that it was important for his two daughters to practice driving with their parents.

“We started with a lot of supervision and gradually let them gain experience,” said Massone, who lives in Boulder. Massone said he was very clear that his daughters were not allowed to text or use their phones while behind the wheel.

“It isn’t how you drive that matters, it’s how your teen thinks you drive,” said Ray Bingham, a professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. To promote safety, parents must drive the way they want their teens to drive, explained Bingham.

Texting remains a leading source of distraction for both teens and parents. Nearly two-thirds, or 61 percent, of parents said they use a handheld cell phone while driving, compared to the 54 percent of teenagers who said they have done the same. Roughly one in three teens said they read a text or email once or more each time they drive, and one in four teens said they respond to a text one time or more when they drive.

Weyenberg agreed that phone use is an issue for drivers her age. “A lot of my friends do text and drive, but we try to discourage them from doing that,” she said, adding that she and her friends help each other avoid distractions while in the car together.

Eleven percent of teenagers reported updating or checking social media sites like Facebook and Twitter while behind the wheel. Even more concerning, one in five teens and one in 10 parents said they conduct extended conversations via text message while driving.

Teens tend to report that their parents are distracted while driving slightly more than their parents say they are. Forty-six percent of teens thought their parents read or send texts while driving, while 36 percent of parents actually said they did.

Distraction doesn’t just come down to using a mobile phone behind the wheel.

“It’s not just the things that you do with your cell phone that are problematic,” Bingham said. “It’s anything that takes eyes off road or hands off the wheel.”

The study found that teenagers are very likely to copy parental tendencies to deal with passenger issues or search for something in the car while driving--and teens perceive it happening more than parents report. Eighty-five percent of teens thought their parents address passenger issues while driving, but 70 percent of parents reported doing this.

In some cases, however, teenage drivers are more prone to distraction. More than half of teens surveyed, 53 percent, say they look for music on a portable music player while driving, compared to only 12 percent of parents.

Parents should also be aware of the added risks posed by young drivers riding with other underage passengers. For 16- and 17-year-old drivers, the risk of being killed in a crash increases with each extra passenger under age 21, when there are no older passengers, the AAA Foundation has reported. Nearly 70 percent of teen drivers reported driving with two or three other teen passengers and no adults, a habit that, according to the AAA Foundation, doubles a driver’s risk of being killed in a crash when compared to driving alone.

Massone and Hughes said they talked to their children about the importance of careful driving, both to ensure the wellbeing of their teens and the safety of others on the road.

“We talked about what they could do to other people with the car and how it was not trivial to get in an accident,” Massone said.

So what can parents do to make sure their teens are safe while driving?

One possibility is setting up a driving agreement that clearly lays out what behavior is acceptable and appropriate when operating a vehicle. Weyenberg said her parents took this approach with her.

“My parents and I made this contract now that I have my license,” Weyenberg said. The agreement prohibits her from texting and talking on the phone while driving. The contract also set up guidelines about how many people could be in the car at once and stipulated that she would get her keys taken away if she broke the rules.

Massone said he and his wife strived to set the right example for his children. “If they see us on and off the phone, they’ll learn that behavior,” he said.

The most important thing parents can do, experts say, is simply talk to their children about safe driving.

“The only way to clear up misperceptions is to communicate about them,” Bingham said. “Parents should be honest with their teens and say, ‘We both need to work on this.’”


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