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Teen Driving: Making a Rite of Passage on the Road to Adulthood Safer

Sarah Denny, MD, FAAP
September 14, 2018

As far as teenagers go, I was a pretty responsible one, if I do say so myself. I kept good grades, did sports and community service, and generally stayed out of trouble. But when I was 16 years old, as I drove a little girl in the neighborhood to soccer practice, I saw a friend driving the other direction. I stuck my head out the window and, looking behind me, yelled a friendly “hello.” And in that moment, I drove my car straight into a tree.

No one was seriously injured, thankfully, but it could have been much worse. Distractions like this are just one of the many contributors to the high number of traffic fatalities involving teen drivers.

Fortunately, we have seen a 50 percent decrease in teen driving deaths in the past 10 years. This is largely because of vehicle safety advancements, increased seat belt use, impaired driving enforcement, and graduated driver’s license laws that require supervised practice and driving privileges in stages. Still, motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death in teens and young adults. Immaturity, inexperience, and risk-taking behaviors all contribute to teens’ quadrupled risk of road fatalities.

In a newly updated policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics highlights how pediatricians can be a positive force in reducing teen driving fatalities. This includes talking with families about driving safety, as well as advocating for evidence-based laws that increase safety on the road--especially for our youngest drivers.

#Teendrivers have the highest rate of motor vehicle crashes, especially fatal ones, among all U.S. age groups. #AAPvoices blogger Dr. Sarah Denny @sdennymd on ways pediatricians can help adolescents stay safe behind the wheel.

It’s hard to overemphasize how important it is for parents to be actively engaged in their child’s early driving experience. Families cannot rely on driver education programs to produce safe drivers. These programs are designed to help drivers pass their licensing exam but have not been shown to produce safer drivers.


During wellness visits long before the teen years, we can remind parents to serve as their child’s first driving “instructor” by modeling safe driving.  Even at an early age, children are noticing the driving behaviors of their parents – seat belt use, texting and driving, and other safety measures.


Down the road during adolescent well visits, we should encourage parents to learn their state’s graduated driver’s license laws and discuss clear expectations with their teen. Its’ a good time to recommend parents make a driving contract with their teen before handing over the keys. We can also make them aware of a growing number of car safetyfeatures available and tools that can help parents supervise a teen’s time behind the wheel even when they’re not in the car. These include in-vehicle data recorders and smart phone apps that send alerts when unsafe driving, such as speeding, is detected.

"During welllness visits long before the teen years, we can remind parents to serve as their child's first driving 'instructor' by modelling safe driving. Even at an early age, children are noticing the driving behaviors of their parents - seat belt use, texting and driving, and other safety measures.”


Pediatricians can also lend a strong and credible voice to calls for strengthened driver safety policies, as simply as writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Proven policies to support include expanding the scope of graduated drivers' licensing, which have been shown to reduce crashes among novice teen drivers by 25 percent or more in some states. Provisions of these laws most strongly associated with lowering teen-involved fatal crashes are strong restrictions on nighttime driving, limits on teen passengers in the vehicle with new drivers and increasing the minimum age for a learner's permit or license.


Another opportunity to help keep drivers safe is by advocating for primary enforcement of seat belt laws, which several states still do not have. Primary enforcement laws allow officers to stop and ticket a passenger or driver for not wearing a seatbelt, regardless of other driving offenses. States with primary enforcement of seat belt laws show an up to 25 percent increase in seatbelt use and a reduction in fatalities of between 7-15 percent.


More recent concerns include the growing number of states legalizing marijuana, with one in five teens surveyed saying that driving while using marijuana is common among their friends. All states currently have a "zero tolerance" policy for young drivers, stating that a blood alcohol content of 0.02 percent or more results in automatic suspension or revocation of the teen's license. However, states vary in the substance and enforcement of other drugs that can impair the ability to drive, providing pediatricians an opportunity to work with their state AAP chapters, law enforcement and legislators to strengthen their laws around drug-impaired driving.


Learning to drive is one of the many rites of passage teens experience on the road to adulthood. Parental involvement and strong policy are pivotal in keeping teen drivers safe. Pediatricians can play an active role in the office and in the community to help promote safe driving in teens.

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

About the Author

Sarah Denny, MD, FAAP, serves on the Executive Committee for the Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Board of Directors for the academy's Ohio Chapter. She works as an attending physician in the Section of Emergency Medicine at Nationwide Children's Hospital and as an Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University School of Medicine.  

Additional Information

The Teen Driver (AAP Policy)

Driving Safety (

Teen Driving Agreement (

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration