NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Parents may be missing some good teachable moments when their kids are learning to drive, U.S. researchers say.
Recordings of parent-child pairs when the child was driving found a little over half of the talk was driving related - much of it simple instructions or criticism - but parents rarely discussed deeper driving wisdom, like how to anticipate and avoid hazards.
"The whole topic of how parents supervise their teens has been a 'black box' for years," said Arthur Goodwin at the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina, who led the new study.
"We really had no idea what they're trying to accomplish, how they go about trying to teach their teens and what they're doing when they're supervising the teens," he told Reuters Health.
Young, inexperienced drivers are at higher risk of accidents, so most states have some type of a gradated driver licensing system. In 46 states plus the District of Columbia, teens with a learner's permit must drive a certain number of hours under the supervision of a licensed driver - usually a parent.
Goodwin and his colleagues recruited 52 teen drivers and their parents to find out what goes on during that time. The teens were mostly 15-year-olds who had received their learner's permits for the state of North Carolina within the previous four weeks.
Next, the research team installed small cameras in cars that the teens would be driving so they could observe the interactions and hear the conversations between teen drivers and their parents.
The researchers analyzed 2,068 video clips and found that 61 percent involved conversations about driving, and about half of those involved comments about vehicle handling or operation.
"Most of the time parents are giving some kind of comment or feedback about the teen's driving, so they're really paying close attention and giving their kids lots of feedback," Goodwin said. Most of it was of a very rudimentary nature - just providing instructions on vehicle handling, he added.
"By far the main thing we saw parents doing was telling teens to slow down, particularly when approaching intersections," Goodwin said. "Parents want their teens to slow down sooner - they just felt uncomfortable with how late teens were waiting to apply the brakes."
About 23 percent of the comments were from parents pointing out something on or about the roadway - usually telling the teens when it was okay to enter traffic.
About 22 percent of the comments were negative about the teen's driving and another 18 percent were meant to help the teen navigate, Goodwin's team reports in Accident Analysis and Prevention.
"The one thing we did not see much of, that we were hoping to see before the study was done, was what we call teaching teens about higher order instruction," Goodwin said, "as opposed to the more rudimentary sorts of things."
"Parents have been driving for many years and they've learned through many years of experience how to recognize situations that could be potentially dangerous," he said.
Parents can see things developing up ahead and recognize when they need to slow down well in advance, but teens are inexperienced so they miss a lot of those cues until they learn from their own experiences, Goodwin said.
"One of the things we were hoping we'd see parents do is helping teens learn to develop that savvy, or wisdom, about driving that they have from their experience," he said, "helping their teens recognize things that can be dangerous and helping them learn how to avoid trouble in the first place."
In most states parents aren't really given that much guidance about how they should go about supervising their teens, Goodwin said.
"About half of the states provide something, usually some kind of booklet to parents," he said. "It shows the steps for making three-point turns and parallel parking and things like that, but there really is not much connection between driver education and parents even though now every state has graduated licensing."
The extended supervised driving period in most states, usually lasting six months to a full year, offers "a lot of time for parents to be out there together and it seems like a real opportunity for parents to do something and try to take advantage of that time," he said.
Jessica Mirman called the study's approach innovative and said it contributes very meaningfully to what is known about parent supervisors of teen drivers.
Mirman, a researcher at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Center for Injury Research and Prevention, was not involved in the new study, but specializes in teen risk behaviors and parental involvement.
"Teen crash rates can be lowered through policies that promote evidence-based driver education programs, parental involvement throughout the learning to drive process, and lots of support for parents who practice with their teens," she told Reuters Health.
"We want to support them through the whole period of learning to drive, while they're in the supervised practice stage of Graduated Drivers Licensing, and ultimately when they're independent drivers," she said.
Mirman also cautioned that parents might misinterpret driving mistakes for deliberate and risky behaviors.
"These things do happen but we also need to be reminded that teens also crash because they're inexperienced and they just don't have the skills," she said. "So when parents are out with their teens supervising practice driving, I think sometimes it's easy to misattribute inexperience to deliberate risk-taking."
SOURCE: bit.ly/1g8nHPL Accident Analysis and Prevention, online March 2, 2014.