Protect Your Teenager: If You Tolerate Unsafe Driving, What Do You Teach Your Kids?

If it’s not already difficult enough to decide at what age individual teenagers are ready to drive and to ensure that they are adequately instructed, there is the omnipresent fear that their lives will be jeopardized by other young drivers who transport them. Make no mistake: nearly every teenager gets faced with situations in which they must decide whether to get in (or stay in) a vehicle with a reckless driver who might be a good friend, a well-trusted team-mate, or an irresistible romantic prospect. Of course, parents usually do not hear about these “dilemmas” until a traffic citation is issued or a crash occurs….

It can be a helpless feeling to know that you cannot control all of your adolescent child’s behavior and decisions. Safety warnings are often waved off by teenagers who cannot conceive that something bad could actually happen to them. (Even smart, responsible teens might be unable to make clear judgements based on realistic perceptions because this level of cognitive development is generally not attained until the early to mid twenties.) With the additional risk factor of experimentation with alcohol and drugs, it is surprising that there are not more serious accidents involving this age group.

But remember this: Your children are always watching and learning from you and other adults. Hopefully, you and your spouse/partner have always been careful drivers, so your children will have grown up with “good modeling” in this respect. But if this is not the case, you must quickly take remedial action to reduce the likelihood of your teen(s) driving unsafely themselves or riding with other young people who might seriously endanger them.

Children who see a parent speed, drive aggressively, get away with whatever they can in relation to yellow/red lights, etc., come to view this behavior as normal and perhaps inevitable. At the same time a child might be scared by a parent’s unsafe driving (and can even develop phobic or post-traumatic stress symptoms as a result), there is an over-riding need to believe that loved and trusted adults “know what they’re doing” and would never put them in danger. The effect can be great confusion re: what actually constitutes safe driving; a perception that some circumstances justify speeding or recklessness (e.g., the adult is frustrated or in a hurry); and denial about being put at risk by someone who is supposed to be taking care of them. A sense of learned helplessness can develop because the child is unable to escape this scary, dangerous situation created by a parent or other caretaker. So even those who do not end up driving unsafely themselves are much more likely to tolerate this behavior with other teen drivers.

While the parent who drives recklessly would present the most immediate threat to everyone’s safety, the collusion of the other parent (or adult member of the household) really messes with a child’s sense of reality. From seeing the apparently more responsible adult let the unsafe driving continue with no consequences, the child learns some very problematic lessons:

  • it is unacceptable to speak up if someone else makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe
  • the ego of the unsafe driver is more important than your survival and well-being
  • conflict must be avoided even at the cost of your own safety
  • it is not in your power to protect yourself.

Finally, it is worth noting that repeated exposure to unsafe situations which do not end in tragedy might spawn a superstitious belief that nothing bad will ever happen (i.e., as a result of unsafe or intoxicated driving). But the truth is, this type of “luck” can run out at any time.

It is fervently hoped that parents who recognize themselves as an unsafe driver will resolve to change. In such a cases, it is helpful to give your children acknowledgment that you have been jeopardizing everyone’s safety and firmly state your intention to stop (cite specific behaviors, such as speeding and tailgating). If you find that you are not able to modify your reckless or aggressive driving on your own, it is recommended that you seek counseling. While unsafe driving can be “just a habit”, it often relates to stress or anger that needs to be dealt with more constructively.

And, when an unsafe driver will not change despite knowing the (physical and emotional) risks posed to loved ones, it ultimately falls on the other parent to address the issue. What this usually means is deciding not to ride with the unsafe driver anymore, and arranging for your children to have other transportation – even if it means foregoing some activities rather than getting into a car with someone who endangers them. You can institute a “policy” that you must drive when going anyplace with your spouse, or otherwise you will follow in a different vehicle. While this might seem extreme, it sends your children a powerful message about the crucial need to protect oneself from unsafe driving. If you feel unable to set this type of limit with a spouse or partner, counseling can help you develop the skills and confidence you need to do so. (If there is a more pervasive pattern of aggressive behavior or abuse, you should definitely seek professional consultation.)

It can be difficult to convince a teenager that reckless drivers among their peers present a genuine danger, and the difficulty is compounded if they know you have tolerated unsafe driving in your own relationship with a spouse/partner. Your teen must be persuaded that their safety is worth the “social cost” of refusing to get into someone’s car or asking to be let out at a safe, well-lighted spot – or even calling 911 if the driver will not heed their request to stop. Because teenagers tend to feel invincible, it might be more effective to focus on the possibility of being maimed or permanently disabled rather than killed in a car accident.

Teens should be coached to recognize unsafe driving, and to make assertive responses (or excuses, if necessary) to avoid being jeopardized by other young drivers. Parents should help their teenagers brainstorm alternatives to riding with people who might endanger them. An good safeguard is making an agreement that your teen can call you (or another trusted relative or family friend) for a safe ride home at anytime…no questions asked. Emphasize that, even if the teen has broken your rules, your main interest is their safety vs. harshly punishing whatever infraction landed them in the situation that would otherwise leave them riding with an unsafe driver. Provided that these discussions are backed up by your good example, teenagers can learn to stay “in the driver’s seat,” in control of their own safety, regardless of who is actually behind the wheel!