This post begins a multi-part series on teen driving contracts. Part 1 introduces the subject, surveys the Internet resources, and explains why, after conducting this research, I am suggesting an improvement to the versions currently available. Part 2 will be titled “How to Negotiate and Sign a Contract,” and Part 3 will be my new model, with instructions, to be posted as a free Word document. In Part 4, I will comment on several of the most difficult issues that arise with these contracts. All posts will be online by the end of December 2009.
1. A “Better” Contract? I confess to a degree of boldness in claiming that the model contract I am proposing is an improvement on what is currently found on the Internet. However, I bring to the drafting task a comprehensive review of the information online; identification, based on an on-going review of the latest research, of contract provisions and instructions that are outdated or incorrect; twenty-seven years of experience as an attorney with drafting and reviewing contracts; and the conviction that a bereaved parent is well-situated to convey the message about the need for these contracts.
2. What Is A Teen Driving Contract? For brevity, I will abbreviate our subject to “TDC.” A TDC is a written, signed agreement between a licensed driver under the age of 18 and his or her parent(s) or guardian(s) that acknowledges the risks and dangers of driving, states clear rules for the teen driver’s conduct for a defined time period after the teen is first licensed, and establishes consequences for a violation of those rules. Thus, the purposes of a TDC are to recognize that bad driving can result in injury, death, and property damage; to acknowledge that, in general, parents remain legally and financially responsible for the consequences of their teen’s driving; and to ensure that parents and teens to have a detailed, calm, and candid talks (or a series of them) about when and how permission to drive will be granted and the consequences of misconduct before a teen gets behind the wheel – instead of after a crash or violation.
3. What A TDC Is Not:
- a legally-binding contract that a parent / guardian or teen may enforce in court;
- a substitute for on-the-road driver training;
- a reason to allow or a means to push a teen who is not yet ready to drive safely;
- a basis for a parent or guardian to be less vigilant; or
- a defense against liability if the parent is sued.
It is important to understand that a TDC is not a legal document, but what is known as a “memo of understanding” or “term sheet.” By no means does this distinction detract from the importance of entering into (what we can still call) a contract, but everyone should understand what the agreement is and isn’t.
4. What’s Available On The Internet? Online, you will find, most prominently, Allstate Insurance’s contract, www.allstateteendriver.com. Let’s give credit where it is due: Allstate has pioneered parent-teen contracts and through its national advertising campaign, including full-page ads in major newspapers, promoted them heavily. In addition, most of the major insurance companies have their own versions, as does nearly every state motor vehicle department website. There are several “.com” websites that sell model parent-teen contracts for about $20 per download, with driving agreements being among dozens of subjects available. (Why any parent would pay for one of these contracts is unclear to me; plenty of free ones available.) Finally, a variety of driving instructors, psychologists, and health care professionals have posted their own versions.
5. Areas For Improvement In TDCs Currently Available Online. As prefaced above, I have concluded that we can improve upon most of the agreements now online because of the following characteristics:
- “bare bones” contracts that don’t acknowledge or address a variety of substantial risks and dangers of teen driving;
- contracts that do not reflect the most recent research about how the brains of teens underappreciate risk, or the huge dangers of texting and electronic devices;
- agreements that try to sound like legally-binding contracts but instead sow confusion (“The party of the first part, hereinafter called the “Teen Driver” . . .);
- contracts that come with pages of upfront instructions, categories of violations, and “special” notes;
- agreements with unclear or vague consequences (“If I do x-y-z, I may lose my license . . .”);
- agreements without a defined timeframe (one year, for example), or that schedule a renegotiation only weeks after signing;
- provisions that are simply contrary to the published research, such as those that only prohibit passengers “at night” – while numerous studies show that passengers increase risks at any hour of the day, and the most unsafe hour of the day is immediately after school lets out;
- agreements that cover non-driving-related subjects, such as homework, grades, allowance, “life responsibilities,” household chores, parental respect, firearms, lending the car to another driver, etc.; and
- contracts that are, in reality, advertising, such as insurance company offerings that are a “free public service” but just happen to mention their discounts for good drivers.
6. Two Critical Problems With National Model Contracts. Up front, we need to acknowledge the difficulties inherent in every model TDC, including my forthcoming one, that is offered nationally. First, a TDC should not vary from state law, and every state is different. Each state’s rules are minimum standards, and thus TDCs must be consistent with them. For example, if state law imposes an 11 PM curfew for drivers under age 18, your contract cannot make it 10:30 PM. (Thus, one benefit of negotiating a TDC is that parent and teen must learn what state law requires.)
Second, obviously, every family and every teen face different circumstances. If parents are divorced, or a guardian is in charge of the teen’s conduct, the negotiation may be more difficult than if two parents are present, informed, and fully engaged by the process. If the teen has a job that requires driving, this reality will need to be accommodated. Rules and exceptions also will vary for rural, suburban, and urban areas, and based on family financial circumstances.
But these problems pale when compared to injury or death resulting from an automobile accident.