Most parents say their kids have ridden with a risky teen driver

Nearly two-thirds of parents worry that their children have been in unsafe situations as passengers traveling with a teen driver, a new survey finds.

More than a third of teens ride with teen drivers at least once or twice a week, according to a poll of parents conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

“Parents are rightfully concerned about teens as passengers with teen drivers,” said Dr. Gary Freed, a co-director of the poll and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan and the Mott Children’s Hospital. “It’s important that we pay a lot of attention to the safety of teen drivers and make sure teens know how to be good passengers who will help drivers stay safe and not distract them.”

The poll, which included responses from a nationally representative sample of parents of teens aged 14 to 18, also found that many parents try to limit how often their teens are passengers in vehicles driven by other teens in potentially unsafe conditions: bad weather, 68%; after midnight, 67%; when the teen driver has possessed a license for less than 6 months, 53%.

Many parents, 48%, also tried to discourage their teens from riding with more than two other teens in the car, from driving after dark, 45% and on the highway, 41%.

A majority of parents, 59%, feared that their teen had been a passenger in an unsafe situation with a teen driver, including riding with a teen distracted by a cell phone, 42%, or other teens in the car, 39%, or riding with a driver who was speeding, 45%.

Most parents say they have spoken with their teens about what to do if they feel unsafe while riding with a teen driver, such as telling the driver they are uncomfortable with unsafe driving, 63%, asking the driver to stop the car and getting out, 48%; and offering to manage the radio or the phone if it is distracting the driver, 47%.

Most parents have offered advice on how to handle things if the driver appears to be impaired by alcohol or drugs: 88% tell their teens to call for a ride; 80% say don’t get into the car; 51% suggest finding another person to ride with and 39% suggest their teen take the keys from the impaired driver.

“Parents need to have a frank discussion with their teen,” Freed said. “And they should tell the teen to call them for a ride if they don’t feel safe.”

Parents and teens need to bone up on the licensing rules in their state, said Dr. Guohua Li, the M. Finster Professor of Epidemiology and Anesthesiology and founding director of the Columbia Center for Injury Science and Prevention at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Over the past couple of decades, all 50 states have adopted graduated licensing laws, “which usually have passenger restrictions for beginning drivers,” said Li, who was not involved in the new poll. “In New Jersey, for example, teen drivers cannot carry more than one passenger.”

New Jersey also doesn’t grant a full license until age 18 and does not allow teens to drive between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. before they have a full license.

While the study highlights the dangers of teens driving with teens, sometimes passengers provide more help than hindrance, said Johnathon Ehsani, an assistant professor at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Using our in-vehicle camera technology we have watched teens riding with peers and most of the time we see them encouraging safe driving practices and even helping in some situations, such as when the driver is lost,” Ehsani said.

Still, Ehsani said, parents need to play a role in setting boundaries. “They can set them first and foremost by making sure teens are abiding by their state’s graduated licensing laws,” he added. “They are the main enforcers of these laws.”

If parents are worried about teens not following the rules, “there are aftermarket in-vehicle cameras,” Ehsani said.

SOURCE: C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, online September 16, 2019.