4 Areas Where Parents Can Help Teens Steer Clear of Trouble

Parenting plays a big role in thwarting driving accidents, STDs, mental health problems, and more.

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The teenage years are fraught with novel threats to body and mind. Yet reading up on health and safety topics could be the last thing on a typical teen's to-do list. That's why informed, proactive parenting can make such a difference, especially in high-risk areas like driving, relationships, and mental health. While adolescents may not intend to occasionally jeopardize their well-being, it's not something most parents want left to chance. For Christine Cope, 40, the idea of her three kids driving was terrifying. The Colorado Springs, Colo., marketing professional recalls thinking, "If they're anything like my husband"—who as a teen would tear around town at excessive speeds—"I knew I needed to pray a lot."

Parents like Cope have fair reason to fret: Car accidents are the chief cause of death and disability among teenagers, with teens being killed at four times the rate of adults. According to a report published today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, riding in a motor vehicle is the most dangerous thing a teenager can do, whether as passenger or driver, accounting for 41 percent of accidental deaths from age 15 to 19.

The contributing factors are legion: inexperience behind the wheel, tendencies to eschew seat belts and to speed, distractibility (as attention flits, perhaps, between road, radio, telephone, and text message), overconfidence in their skills, and underdeveloped judgment and impulse control. Toss bad weather into the mix, or any circumstance that would raise even a seasoned motorist's chance of wrecking, "and you're really compounding the probability of a crash," says Arlene Greenspan, a senior scientist at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

Fortunately, teens aren't constitutionally destined to drive hazardously, and worried parents aren't exactly helpless to protect them. A growing number of solutions—from sophisticated GPS tracking devices to bumper stickers bearing toll-free numbers that forward called-in complaints straight to Mom—empower parents to take an active role in steering their kids away from accidents. Cope, for example, enrolled in a program offered by her insurance company that provided her family with an in-car camera device. It senses and records the sights and sounds of any abrupt, potentially risky maneuvers made by her licensed teenagers and alerts her immediately by E-mail. So when her 17-year-old recently attempted to hide that he'd rammed a light pole, she couldn't be fooled. "He got busted," Cope chuckles. "It's a beautiful thing."

But the gadget, called the DriveCam, isn't just for busting kids. It gives parents a chance to teach better habits and "make driving safer for teens," says Bill Carpenter, a consumer division executive at DriveCam Inc. Since 2007, the device has been a key component of American Family Insurance's TeenSafe Driver Program, which is available in 19 states. AFI customers like Cope who have teenage drivers can get the camera free for a year. Parents receive coaching tips from trained analysts who review footage of dangerous driving; teens and parents can also watch the footage to learn from mistakes. People not insured by AFI can get the camera for $550 (including installation), plus $30 per month for services.

Parents' other options include GPS tracking tools designed to alert them electronically if their novice drivers blow through preset speed limits, ignore driving curfews, or cruise beyond certain boundaries. One is offered through Safeco Insurance's Teensurance program, a service that became available to customers and noncustomers alike in May. In most states, Safeco policyholders who buy Teensurance ($14.99 per month for a two-year contract) receive a 10 percent discount on their teen's auto policy. Another such tool is MobileTEEN GPS ($299 for the device and $29.95 per month); it has been offered to AIG Auto Insurance customers through AIG's Teen GPS Program at $19.95 per month for two years.

A lower-budget approach: bumper stickers bearing slogans like "Call My Mom" and a toll-free number for reporting erratic driving. "If I can save a few lives, I'd be happy," says Debbie Carrigg, 45, CEO, president, and "major mom" of the nonprofit Call My Mom, which has distributed about 500 of the decals nationwide since June. Each sticker contains a unique code number, allowing anonymous tips to be quickly forwarded to the appropriate parents. Teenage trauma cases that Carrigg witnessed during an eight-year stint as an ER nurse helped inspire the project. "I've seen all of it," she says of those gruesome accidents. "There are a lot of memories playing out in my head."