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It is standard advice to parents of teen drivers: “You are the keeper of the keys.” Let’s explore what this means.
In general, of course, no keys, no car. (Yes, some cars now start with a push button; by “keys” I refer to whatever starts the ignition). If parents withhold keys, teens don’t drive, and there are no teen driver accidents. But absent putting off driving to age 20, the question is when, where, and how to give up/hand over car keys.
The starting point is to keep in mind the powerful if not exalted position of being a parent. A parent is the dragon that guards the treasure. No one gets by who shouldn’t. Switching analogies, a teen driver is a pilot, and Mom-Dad-Guardian are the FAA Controllers who determine when the airplane pulls away from the terminal, approaches the runway, takes off, and lands. Parents are the Parole Board that decides who gets released and when. To bring these analogies back to driving (and much of the content of this blog), parents are the ones who decide whether an inexperienced and risk-prone person will be allowed to operate a multi-ton piece of machinery that has the potential to injure or kill others. We hold a position of responsibility to our families, and of trust to everyone else who will be on the same street or highway as our teen drivers.
What should a teen need to do to obtain the keys? First and foremost is to have to ask for them. Keys should not be readily available to any teen driver. They should not be just one more thing in the bin on the kitchen counter. To go back to the pilot/FAA analogy, the exercise of a teen asking for the keys each time he or she wants to get behind the wheel is a parent’s opportunity to review the flight plan, to conduct a safety check: weather suitable for an inexperienced driver, destination and time of arrival and departure established; route mapped out; driver rested, alert, and not overly stressed. The teen’s trip should be purposeful, not recreational (see blog post for October 8, 2009). The main points of the teen-parent contract (that parent and teen have hopefully negotiated and signed) should be momentarily reviewed: no illegal passengers, the timetable for the trip will occur within the state’s curfew (and your own, if more restrictive), etc..
Handing over the keys should be a ceremony that highlights the need for caution and provides an opportunity for a safety check.
Where does a parent keep the keys? Hiding them is one option, although if my experience with my son is any guide, this may be a doubtful strategy. Concealing the keys only set off a game of hide-and-seek. The hiding seemed to underscore a lack of trust and undermine the also-important message that driving is a very adult undertaking. (Also, on one occasion, I forgot where I had hidden they keys.) On the other hand, it is hard to advocate that the keys be available in plain sight of your teen, governed only by an understanding, even if stated in the teen driver contract, that she will ask for the keys each time before driving. There should be a middle ground. I advocate having the keys available on a combination lock, perhaps in a utility closet in your kitchen. In this way, their location is not secret, and an enterprising teen could pilfer them, but stowing them in this way makes taking them out of the lock a deliberate, contemplative step. Doing this, I think, puts the emphasis on the fact that handing over the keys is a momentous occasion and reinforces that the keys are being made available in return for the safety review and assurances.
(Note: as I have written elsewhere on this blog, whether handing over the keys is tied to other matters such as completion of homework and chores is your business, but my own view is that driving is driving, and should be separate from other parent-teen matters: we have enough to think about with teen driving without mixing in other parts of life.)
Being the custodian of keys is a somewhat different undertaking when your teen in the primary driver of the car, as opposed to another driver of a family car or cars. I will address this subject further in an upcoming post, but note for the moment that research has demonstrated that teens who have their own cars have higher accident rates than those who rely on a parent’s or sibling’s car. This advice about keys is doubly important if your teen has his or her own car.
Car keys are a parent’s leverage. Use it. Make each time your teen gets behind the wheel an investiture ceremony, a meeting of the National Safety Council. Keep firmly in mind what is at stake and what is at risk when a teen becomes The Keeper of the Keys.