Parents Keep Teen Drivers Safe When They Control the Car Keys

Kids with their own car are twice as likely to have a crash, a survey says.

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Parents of teenagers are justly worried about how to keep teenagers safe behind the wheel: Teenagers are the most dangerous drivers on the road, and car crashes are the leading cause of death among teens. But it turns out there's one simple way to keep kids safer: Don't give teens a car they consider their own.

Teenagers who reported that they were the main person driving a vehicle, rather than sharing it with other family members, were more than twice as likely to be involved in a recent crash. One in four drivers with primary access to a car had had an accident while driving in the past year, compared with 1 in 10 for shared access. That means 25 percent of the kids driving their "own" cars had at least one accident in the past year! The teens with their own car also were more likely to use a cellphone while driving (78 percent, compared with 55 percent) and to speed (70 percent vs. 54 percent). These figures come from a survey of 2,167 teenagers by researchers at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. It is said to be the first survey to look at whether having primary access to a car affects safety for teenage drivers. It was published online today in Pediatrics.

What makes driving a family car safer? Maybe it's as simple as knowing that it's the fam's car. I vividly remember my horror when I backed into a car in the high school parking lot and crumpled the fender of the family Volkswagen. I'm sure the realization that it wasn't "my" car made me more contrite—and more careful, at least for a while.

Many parents are thrilled when their teenager is finally driving, and many teens need to drive themselves to school or work. As a result, it's easy for parents to think that a new driver needs a car. Indeed, the researchers found that 70 percent of the teenagers said that they had their "own" car. This is dangerous, the researchers say, and parents should consider delaying giving a child a car at least until the teenager has been driving for a year.

Children of parents who have authoritative or authoritarian parenting styles were 50 percent less likely to have had a crash in the past year, compared with parents whose style is permissive or uninvolved. (Authoritative parents set firm rules but are supportive; authoritarian parents set rules but are less supportive.) That's from a second study by CHOP researchers, also in today's Pediatrics. The advice: Don't be afraid to set rules for safe driving behavior, and yank the keys if those rules aren't followed. In fact, making your teenager say, "Mom, can I have the car keys?" may be one of the simplest and best ways to keep your child safe.