Car accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But many accidents can be prevented by helping teens make safer choices while driving.
“In the teenage years, the brain is mostly developed, but the frontal lobe is still developing,” says Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, a board certified clinical neuropsychologist and the Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children’s Health℠. “The frontal lobe controls impulsivity and integrates the processing of multiple pieces of information at once.”
Dr. Holland says teens are at higher risk for car wrecks because their frontal lobes are not fully developed. This can cause them to sometimes:
- Have difficulty handling distractions (e.g., other passengers, radio and cell phones)
- Make more impulsive decisions while driving
- Not fully understand the risks of their driving behaviors
As a parent, you can help lower your teen’s risk for car accidents by talking openly and honestly with them about driving safety. Discuss the topics below with your teen before they get behind the wheel.
Get rid of multiple distractions
While all drivers are at a higher risk for wrecks if they are distracted, teens can become distracted more easily. More experienced drivers may take steps to eliminate distractions when they need to focus more on driving. For instance, you may turn the radio down when you get into traffic. Teens need to develop these instincts, too.
“Teens may have trouble tracking multiple moving objects like cars, pedestrians and bicyclists if the radio is on or a cell phone is buzzing,” says Dr. Holland. “They need to shut out those distractions because their brains may not always do that for them. So, if it’s raining or if they’re navigating a difficult merge, maybe they need to turn the radio off. Maybe they need to ask friends in the car to be quiet.”
Talk to your teen about eliminating distractions by having fewer friends or no passengers at all in the car, keeping the radio volume lower, and keeping their cellphone in their backpack or purse and on silent. You should also stress to your teen to never text and drive. There are smartphone apps, like LifeSaver and AT&T Drive Mode, available to ensure the phone doesn’t make noise or can’t be used to text while a teen is driving.
Get enough sleep
Sleep is important for all drivers and especially growing teens. Teens who are sleep-deprived may be less alert and more easily distracted. Some research suggests that a sleepy driver can be just as impaired as a drunk driver.
Talk to your teen about getting at least nine hours of sleep each night. Use bedtimes and curfews to help ensure your teen is getting the sleep they need to be safe.
Use common sense
As a parent, you’ve had years of practice driving. Whether you realize it or not, you have a lot of common sense knowledge about driving, such as following cars at a safe distance or knowing when you’re in another driver’s blind spot.
Dr. Holland suggests you share this common-sense advice with your teen during open, honest conversations about driving. Talk to them about good decisions they can make while driving, such as:
- Pulling off to the side of the road during heavy rain or storms
- Following at a safe distance, which increases as speed increases
- Avoiding unsafe or unnecessary passing
- Wearing a seat belt, which reduces their risk of death in a car accident by nearly half
- Sticking to the speed limit even when other cars aren’t
- Using turn signals consistently
- Avoiding driving while sleepy or under the influence—using options like Uber or calling a parent for a ride instead
Talking to your teen about safe driving can help them make better choices. Before you hand over the car keys, be sure you and your teen have had a conversation about how they should behave as a driver and what tools (like apps) and rules you will use to help them stay safe.
If you are concerned about your teen’s driving safety or other risky behaviors, it may benefit your teen to see a Children’s Health adolescent medicine specialist Learn more or make an appointment by calling 214-456-9099.