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Teenagers consider their driver's license as their ticket to independence. It's a big moment for parents, too. Though they know about 16-year-olds' high crash risks, they're relieved not to have to drive their children around anymore. But the price is steep. Crashes are the leading cause of death among American teens, accounting for more than one-third of all deaths of 16- to 18-year-olds.

An effective way to reduce this toll is by adopting phased in driving privileges in your household. This is done on a voluntary basis by parents. Driving privileges are phased in to restrict beginners' initial experience to lower-risk situations. The restrictions gradually are lifted, so teenagers are more experienced and mature when they get their full, unrestricted privileges. 

Phased-in privileges that are well designed restrict night driving, limit teen passengers, establish zero tolerance for alcohol and require a specified amount of supervised practice during the initial phase. Programs that apply graduated privileges have reduced teenagers' crash rates in the Canada, New Zealand and the United States, but not all states have such laws. There are no graduated licensing laws in Indiana. But with or without a state law, parents can establish rules based on the graduated model.

What parents of teenagers can do

When parents understand the risk factors involved in letting teens get behind the wheel, they can act to improve the situation for their own children.

Don't rely solely on driver education: High school driver education may be the most convenient way to learn driving skills, but it doesn't produce safer drivers. Poor skills aren't always to blame for teens' crashes. Their attitudes and decision-making skills matter more. They often think they're immune to harm, which is why they don't use safety belts as much and why they deliberately seek thrills like speeding. Training and education don't change these tendencies.

Restrict night driving: Most nighttime fatal crashes among young drivers occur between 9 p.m. and midnight, so teenagers shouldn't be driving much later than 9 p.m. The problem isn't just that late-night driving requires more skill. Outings late at night tend to be recreational. In these circumstances, even teens who usually follow all the rules can be easily distracted or encouraged to take risks.

Restrict passengers: Teen passengers in a vehicle can distract a beginning driver and/or lead to greater risk-taking. Because young drivers often transport their friends, there's a teen passenger problem as well as a teen driver problem. Almost two of every three teen passenger deaths (62 percent) occur in crashes with a teen driver. While night driving with passengers is particularly lethal, many fatal crashes with teen passengers occur during the day. The best policy is to restrict teen passengers, especially multiple teens, all the time.

Supervise practice driving: Take an active role in helping your teenager learn how to drive. Plan a series of practice sessions in a wide variety of situations, including night driving. Give beginners time to work up to challenges like driving in heavy traffic or on the freeway. Supervised practice should be spread over at least six months and continue even after a teenager graduates from a learner's permit to a restricted or full license.

Remember you are a role model: New drivers learn a lot by example, so practice safe driving. Teens with crashes and violations often have parents with poor driving records.

Require safety belt use: Don't assume that seatbelt use when you're in the car with your 16-year-old means seatbelts will be used all the time, especially when your child is out with peers. Remember that seatbelt use is lower among teenagers than older people. Insist on seatbelts all the time.

Prohibit driving after drinking: Make it clear that it's illegal and highly dangerous for a teenager to drive after drinking alcohol or using any other drug. Even small amounts of alcohol are impairing for teens. And NEVER host or condone a party where teens drink at home. It's illegal for the host parents and for the underage drinkers and wrong-headed in every way. Prosecutors will go hard on parents who host such parties, and it's a jailable offense.

Choose vehicles for safety, not image: Teenagers should drive vehicles that reduce their chances of a crash and offer protection in case they do crash. For example, small cars don't offer the best protection in a crash. Avoid cars with performance images that might encourage speeding. Avoid vehicles that are prone to rollover. For more information on the safest vehicles for teens and what to check for when buying a used car read What's your teen driving?

Source: Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute

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