Teen driver laws in most states contain a nighttime curfew. In general, the deadline for teen drivers to be home ranges from 9:00 p.m. to midnight, with several exceptions, such as employment, school activities, medical needs, religious observances, and participation in volunteer public safety services (fire, ambulance, “safe rides,” etc.).
Some thoughts about curfews and managing them:
- The most important point is that curfews do not address the most dangerous hours of the day for teen drivers, the one or two hours after school. It is at those times that teens are most likely to be riding with illegal passengers, which substantially increases crash rates. Thus, curfews address the second-most dangerous time, late-night driving.
- As to late-night driving, of course, the biggest problem is teen drivers racing home to beat the curfew. In fact, some teens think that getting off the road by the state’s deadline is a legitimate reason to drive at whatever speed is necessary to get home on time.
- The curfew does not justify speeding, of course, but it does highlight the importance of parent-teen planning to ensure that teens will be off the road without speeding. Doing so requires a discussion before the teen leaves of the route and the anticipated return-trip travel time. Once these are established, parent and teen are better able to plan the return to comply with the curfew (route + estimated travel = necessary departure time). The departure should also build in a margin for traffic delay; if the route normally takes 30 minutes and the curfew is 11:00 p.m., then departure time should be 10:15 p.m.
- The teen driver should be clear that a delay such as a traffic backup that will result in missing the curfew needs to be reported to a parent or guardian as soon as it can be done safely, that is, not by texting or using a cell phone while driving, but by getting to a safe, off-road location at the earliest opportunity to explain the location and extent of the delay. The teen should understand that delays first reported upon arrival at home will be thoroughly questioned.
- If the parent and teen have executed a Teen Driving Contract (either the model on this blog or one of the other national models), the contract most likely identifies a penalty for missing a curfew. As much as any other part of a Teen Driving Contract, this provision requires a parent’s judgment. As we all know, predicting driving time can be an inexact science, and there will be times when teens will arrive late due to traffic conditions beyond their knowledge or control. Recall that the purpose of a Contract is a mutual commitment to safety, not a punishment for the slightest infraction. My advice is that if the teen was diligent in leaving on time, provides a credible explanation for being a few minutes late, and is not a repeat offender, flexibility is appropriate.
- As for managing the exceptions stated in your state’s law, the first, simple rule is: if the teen will be on the road after the state’s curfew on a regular basis, most likely for employment or a school activity, have the employer or a school official provide a letter, on letterhead, that the teen can keep in the glove box. The letter should specify when the teen will be on the road, why, and the route. An employer’s letter might say: “To Whom It May Concern/Law Enforcement: Kevin Jones is an employee of the 7-11 Store on Midland Avenue in Smithtown. He works until midnight on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, after which he drives to his home at 123 Main Street, using Route 14.” A school official’s might say: “Mary Doe is involved in a theater production at Central High School from April 16 to May 4. She will leave school Monday through Thursday night between 11:00 p.m. and midnight and drive to her home at 18 Elm Street, using the River Parkway.”
- Teens need to understand the limits on using exceptions. When I speak at high schools, I tell students, “If the curfew is 11:00 p.m. and its 11:15 p.m. because the game went into overtime, and the police stop you, but you are somewhere close to a direct line between school and your home, you’re not breaking the law. But if it’s 2:00 a.m. and you’re two towns away, you’re in trouble.”
- Parents should bear in mind that a joyride with a curfew is still a joyride and therefore dangerous. The fact that a teen may be ordered home from “recreational” driving (see “The Difference Between “Purposeful” and “Recreational” Driving”) by a certain time does not lessen the huge dangers of the joyride itself.
- Finally, recognize that the night-time curfew in a state’s teen driver law is a maximum. Use your judgment on a case-by-case basis. Exercise your rights under your Teen Driving Contract. If particular circumstances such as fatigue or bad weather counsel you to set an earlier curfew for a particular evening, by all means do so! As with all other parts of teen driver laws, the state sets one curfew for all teens in all circumstances. This does not mean that you, as a parent, park your judgment in the garage.