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Why it matters what your teenage driver thinks about driving

Key insight about what's going on in the minds of teen motorists.

Getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage for America’s teens: For many, a license equals freedom and getting one step closer to adulthood and independence. But each generation has different feelings and stressors about driving, and the current generation is no different. Here’s what you might discover from friends, relatives and your own kids, and how you can help learning drivers become better drivers.

They may be less inclined to get their license.

Fact: Fewer drivers you pass on America’s roadways are teens than years before. Only about 60 percent are licensed by age 18, down from 80 percent 30 years ago, according to a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study.

The reasons are varied. “They don’t have time, or the insurance costs too much,” explains 17-year-old Kate Tulenko of Ellicott City, Maryland.

What you can do: Talk with your teen about the costs and responsibilities of driving as well as expectations for each other such as who pays for what. Some teens may want to jump into car ownership without realizing how much it costs for gas, insurance and maintenance. And if your teen is reluctant to get a license, be sure you are on the same page about getting around.

They realize they’re still learning.

Inexperience makes the first year of licensure the most dangerous one, but the accident risk declines as new drivers gain experience. Even so, many teens know they have to be prepared to be behind the wheel, all alone, and deal with whatever the drive presents. “You don’t really learn how to drive until you’re by yourself, with no one right there telling you how to do things,” says Tulenko.

What you can do: Just because your teen gets a license doesn’t mean you should stop sitting alongside. They’re still learning, and you can help guide them through difficult situations and new driving experiences.

They think speeding is no big deal.

Crashes are the leading cause of teen deaths, and speed is a factor in about a third of fatal teen accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Still, Tulenko and Aidan McNally, of Mendota Heights, Minnesota, say speeding is common. “On freeways, everyone goes five to 10 over the speed limit,” McNally says. Tulenko agrees. “A lot of teenagers drive fast,” she says.

What you can do: Emphasize to your teenage driver how dangerous it is to disobey traffic laws. Not only can they be fined if they drive over the speed limit, but disregarding other rules of the road, such as seat belt use, can be fatal.

They’re paying attention to you. Really.

A recent study commissioned by SafeKids Worldwide supports the link between teen-parent driving habits, including seat belt use, speeding, dealing with distractions, and drinking and driving. “I learned how to drive from them, so yeah, their habits shape mine,” McNally says. “They don’t go on the phone in the car, and neither do I.”

What you can do: It pays to monitor and talk about driving, even after your teen has been licensed — especially during that first high-risk year. Draw up a list of family driving rules, addressing speeding, seat belts, phone use and more. It’s a proven way to help teens make safer choices while driving. And model what kind of driver you want them to become.

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