Safe Teen Driving: When It’s Actually Good to Be a Helicopter Parent


How parents can encourage safe teen driving

Teenage girl on street with headphones
6 min read

Last month, The New York Times endorsed a widely ridiculed and mocked parenting trend: helicopter parenting. But before anxious parents dust off their helicopter licenses, note that The Times only endorses watching kids’ every moves in one specific case: learning to drive. Safe teen driving is, to many parents, an oxymoron. However, a little extra attention could drastically improve your teen’s driving habits and potentially save lives.

“If you’re going to have an early, untimely death,” Nicole Morris, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, told The New York Times, “the most dangerous two years of your life are between 16 and 17, and the reason for that is driving.” And some researchers, like Charlie Klauer at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, say one in four teens will crash during the first six months of driving.

Learning to drive isn’t defined as the completion of a Driver’s Ed course and a handful of “supervised” hours logged behind the wheel. Learning to drive, argues The New York Times, is something that takes years of practice, and even failure. Teens need more supervision, and parents are more often than not the ones responsible for supervising. A bummer, perhaps, for parents who were looking forward to hanging up their chauffeur hats (and maybe even getting a little extra help with errands or driving younger children), but thoughtful teaching, increased supervision, and continued feedback has the potential to save a great many lives.

There’s Help for Parents of Teen Drivers

Even if parents of teen drivers know they should supervise their kids’ driving when they first start out, they may be at a loss about how to do so. The New York Times offers some general tips for parents:

  • Don’t allow your teen to drive non-family members: just one non-family member increases teen’s risk of a crash increases by 44 percent. Many states have graduated licenses that don’t allow passengers for six months, but experts say six months isn’t nearly long enough, and parents should extend the rule.
  • Turn off cell phone notifications. (Avoid all distracted driving!)
  • Cell phones should only be used for navigation, and only in a dashboard dock, at eye level.
  • For at least the first six months (and longer if parents think it’s necessary), teens shouldn’t drive between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.
  • Utilize as many vehicle safety features as possible, such as: automated brakes, forward-collision warning and lane departure systems, and airbags.
  • Involve yourself in your teen’s driving education: ask questions about their choices and actions on the road, supervise them, and ensure they practice driving in many types of conditions.

Some of the Best Tech for Teenage Drivers

Many new apps and other technology may allow parents to “parent” from afar—offering their children freedom–but with accountability. We’re not advocating spying or stalking (even of one’s own children), so we suggest talking openly with your children about how you’ll be monitoring them as they take that very important step towards independence and begin learning to drive.

Apps:

  • LifeSaver locks the smart phone on which it is downloaded while the vehicle is driving and offers “arrival” status updates to interested parental parties (read: parents and guardians).
  • For kids who feel anxious ignoring a text while driving, both the Safest Text Auto Reply and Drive Mode apps silence incoming texts and calls (thus cutting down on distractions) when the vehicle is traveling over a certain speed. They also send auto-responses letting the person on the other end know the phone’s owner is driving.

Other Tech:

As long as your teenager’s car model year is 1996 or later, you can plug monitoring systems into the vehicle’s OBD-II port (also called a diagnostic port, and located under the steering wheel or on the driver’s side foot well).  Two good options, from The Charlotte Observer:

  • Voxx CarLink ASCL4, for $279, plus installation and a monthly service fee of $9.99, parents can access: text blocking, driver-scoring reports, and Safety Zone “geofencing” which sends alerts when the driver has gone outside a certain physical zone.
  • Cellcontrol system, costs $129, is self-installable, has no monthly fee, is solar powered, and offers easy programming for particular phone usage within the vehicle. Rule enforcing begins at 1 mph and the system can tell if a driver or passenger is using the phone (allowing the latter and not former, for instance). When a driver arrives, Cellcontrol sends a message with a GPS-tracked map of the journey taken. The company’s recently released DriveUp program monitors and scores driver behavior, helping to identify distracted driving issues and areas for driving improvement.
  • Dash cams are another option for parents of teen drivers, but to get their full benefit (and avoid seeming like a spy), parents should consider reviewing the tapes at regular intervals and discussing their child’s driving behaviors, offering solutions and advice when necessary.

Bonus: many major car insurance companies offer discounts for drivers using Cellcontrol and similar products–just call your agent and ask.

Mother and daughter

What Are the Safest Cars for Teens?

For parents with the means and desire to outfit their teens with a ready-to-go safety machine, many auto manufacturers are producing vehicles with teens specifically in mind. Quoted recently ranked the top five cars for teen drivers–the 2016 Chevy Malibu topped the list. The Malibu not only protects teen drivers with the latest active and passive safety features, but it actually helps teens learn to drive better by offering driver reports. (Oh, and Quoted also explored some of the worst cars for teen drivers—avoid these!)

Other automakers offer many of the same features: Ford’s MyKey feature allows parents to control vehicle settings from afar and is offered in several models, and Hyundai’s BlueLink offers comprehensive safety and car care.  

So, drive with your teens when you can, offering calm advice and tips along the way. And when you can’t be there, consider an app, device, or even vehicle that can helicopter in your place—at least for the first couple of years your new driver is on the road. The kids may hate it, but feel free to invoke the “It’s for your own good!” creed of generations past. Such is parenting!