a blog for parents of teen drivers

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A blog called Juggle, part of the Wall Street Journal, recently posed the question, “When Should Your Teen Start Driving?”  The article raised issues that have been debated for years by legislators and traffic safety professionals across the country:  Should the minimum age for licensing teen drivers be 15, 16, 17, or even 18?


I respectfully submit that this question can mislead parents.


When state governments adopt teen driving laws, they establish simple, clear minimums.  Lawyers often call these “bright line standards,” meaning that whether the rule is good or bad public policy, at least it is clear:  if the minimum age is 16, and your teen is 15 years, 364 days old, she cannot get a learner’s permit or a license, but if she is 16 years, 1 day old she can.  Put another way, teen driver laws tell parents and teens when their teens become eligible to apply for a permit or a license.  The birth certificate does the rest.


Drivers License ApplicationThus, when states set a minimum age, they establish a single rule for every teen and every family.  Across most of the United States, state laws allow teens to obtain learner’s permits when they turn 16 and a so-called restricted, provisional, or junior license a few months later.  Whether the minimum age should be higher has been debated nationally, as the Wall Street Journal article discusses.  Here in Connecticut, when our statewide Task Force met in 2008 to revise our laws, some argued that if the minimum age were raised to 17 or 18, it would actually be harder for many parents to train their teens to drive, because so many leave the house around age 18, to attend college or begin a job.  On the other hand, New Jersey has just published a study showing that raising its minimum age for a license to 17 has reduced crash and fatality rates measurably among 16, 17, and even 18 year olds.


But asking what the statewide minimum should be is a deceiving question for parents; your proper focus should be at what age your teen should be allowed to drive, regardless of what state law says.  Some commentators call this the “age of responsibility,” to distinguish it from the “age of eligibility.”


The critical caution for parents is that each state’s minimum driving age, the one simple rule for the state’s entire population, is influenced by politics – legislators vying for support and votes of parents; tradition (the minimum age has been about 16 for a generation); culture (America romanticizes its automobiles); and simplicity / governments need rules that are easy to administer).  But in no way, shape, or form are these driving ages based on public officials or law enforcement concluding that science or crash data show that all or most teens can safely drive at age 16, 17, or 18.  In fact, these ages are directly contrary to what science, crash data, and numerous teen driver studies now tell us.  If teen driver laws strictly followed science and data, the minimum driving age would be somewhere between 22 and 27!


So, parents, do not be misled:  state law may say that your son or daughter is now old enough to drive, but in your judgment, is he or she ready to drive safely?  The factors to assess here are appreciation of risk (is your child a daredevil?); emotional maturity (can your child handle the stress of driving?); physical maturity (is your child coordinated enough to handle a car, strong enough to change a tire?); and fear (will the dangers of driving overwhelm your teen’s driver training?).  Every parent needs to make these judgments about every teen.  In this calculation, the two factors that have no place whatsoever are the convenience to the parent / family of having another driver in the house, and peer pressure from your teen’s friends.


This blog is about informed decisions by parents.  One critical element is to understand that just because your state’s teen driver laws allows your teen to obtain a license does not mean that the state has determined that that age is safe for most teens, and it is up to you to be the extra filter in the process, to decide whether your teen is ready to learn to be, and become, a responsible driver.  Forget the “legal age” and focus on the “age of responsibility.”  Your state may have a law, but you have a veto.

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On Monday, April 12, in Philadelphia, my work on this blog will be recognized by the National Transportation Safety Highway Administration (“NHTSA”) at its annual public service awards luncheon, part of the Lifesavers Conference.  I am deeply grateful to NHTSA for this honor, and for the opportunity to spread the word about this blog to traffic safety professionals and parents across the country.  Special thanks to Mario Damiata and his colleagues at NHTSA Region 1 for nominating me, and to Joe Cristalli of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, and the folks at the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center for their support.  I am also grateful to Curt Clarisey of Clarisey Consulting ( in Simsbury, Connecticut for designing and maintaining this blog.


Finally, my thanks to so many parents who have written to let me know that the blog has been helpful.  My favorite e-mail remains this one:


Before I read your blog, if you asked me how I was doing with our two teen drivers, I would have said, “Well enough.”  After reading your blog, my answer became, “Not nearly enough.”


NHTSA’s press release is found at:

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Picture this:  Your teen, a licensed driver for several months, receives a ticket from a police officer for violating some provision of your state’s teen driver laws – speeding, illegal passengers, on the road after curfew, violating cell phone restrictions, some type of moving violation. The teen pleads with you that “I didn’t do it!,” or the police made a mistake, or the officer singled her out from among other drivers whose driving was much worse because she’s a teenager.  Or the police were sneaky, lying in wait behind a sign or a tree.  “It’s just not fair!” pleads your young driver.  This was her first direct encounter with the police.


A teen driver receiving a ticket sets three things in motion for parents/guardians and teens.  First, the parent and teen need to talk through what happened (and get past the initial denials).  Second, the teen driver and parent need to decide whether they will challenge the ticket or accept the consequences — paying a fine, incurring driving record points, or receiving a license suspension.  Third, parent and teen need to decide when they are going to respond.


Speeding TicketThis third decision is important.  It is influenced by the fact that there is almost always an administrative lag time between when police issue a ticket and when the government processes the driver’s response or a court issues a hearing date. Every state administers tickets for driving violations differently.   Weeks or even months can elapse between when a ticket is issued to a teen driver and when she receives notice of the penalty for a violation or notice of a court date.  Meanwhile, unless the parent and teen have signed a teen driving contract that results in an immediate suspension, the teen may continue to drive.


For the parent of a teen driver, this situation and these decisions (what happened, how to respond, and when) are a critical teaching moment.  At stake are (1) your teen’s respect for the law in general and teen driver laws in particular; (2) her respect for law enforcement; and (3) her understanding that driving implicates the safety of dozens of other people.  Your approach to each of these issues will affect your teen’s approach to driving.


This concern about parent conduct and guidance is not hypothetical.  In 2007, Massachusetts adopted a mandatory license suspension system for teens who violated its GDLs.  Suspensions started at 60 days for a first offense and went up from there for repeat offenses.  Within months of the start of enforcement, the news media began to report about parents resisting fiercely – screaming at prosecutors and court personnel, doing everything possible to avoid suspensions of their teens’ licenses.  These parents were no doubt angry about the inconvenience of now having to again drive their teens to school and events and losing their new, in-house, pick-up and delivery service.  But what struck me about these news articles was envisioning the teens standing there, watching their parents challenge and disparage police, prosecutors, and court staff.


I recognize that police can make mistakes, and that sometimes they use enforcement techniques such as speed traps that can seem sneaky and unfair.  Police can appear arbitrary when ticketing some while others offenders go unpunished.  Moreover, a police officer stopping a teen driver can create the perception that the teen has been profiled, that is, stopped due to her apparent age rather than her driving. 


But back to the teaching moment and the three issues:  While parents should review with their teens the events that led to the ticket, they should also recognize that factually baseless tickets are a relatively rare occurrence.  From my experience on Connecticut’s teen driving task force, which included state and local police, I conclude that one of the best assurances we have that tickets issued to teen drivers usually have some actual basis is that the police generally have far more responsibilities than they can handle;  they issue tickets only when misconduct genuinely threatens public safety.


If we assume that most tickets have some basis, then we can focus on the key point:  A parent’s reaction and approach to a teen driver’s ticket  presents a critical opportunity to provide several safe driving lessons.  Parents, please:


  • Don’t disparage the teen driving laws as baseless or unfair.


  • Push back against your teen’s insistence that the police officer was mistaken, arbitrary, vindictive, or stupid.


  • Direct your teen to accept the consequence of her action.


  • Don’t argue with prosecutors or court staff about your teen’s conduct.


  • Don’t let inconvenience or cost to you get in the way of these lessons.


  • Don’t delay; have your teen take the medicine. Don’t ask a court for repeated continuances (delays), and don’t make excuses (“She has a quiz/game/lesson”) that pale against safety.


As those of you who have read the “My Story” portion of this blog know, this issue is personal for me.  My son Reid got his license in January 2006, a ticket for a lane-change violation in April, and then a speeding ticket (42 mph in a 25 mph zone) in September.  The second ticket required him to take a four-hour retraining class at the Department of Motor Vehicles.  He had 90 days to schedule it.  He put it off and off and off, until he finally scheduled it for the 89th day, December 2.  He crashed eleven hours before his retraining class was scheduled to begin, and died five hours later.

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