Positive Reinforcement the Key to Teaching Teens to Drive

There are few bigger moments in the life of a teenager then when they turn old enough to drive a car. Whether your state allows teens to start driving at 16 or at 14, odds are you can expect to hear about them wanting to get their learners permit well in advance of their birthday. While parents teaching their children how to drive is a time honored right of passage, the idea of anyone under the age of 18 behind the wheel sends shivers to parents and other motorists alike.

Car crashes are by far the leading cause of teenage deaths in the U.S., as five times more teens perish in accidents than from poisoning or cancer. To reinforce how serious the nature of driving a vehicle is, many parents choose to use scare tactics to encourage their teens to drive safely. Most driver education classes try similar tactics by showing gruesome videos and photos of wrecked cars and crash fatalities, but does this type of negative reinforcement actually make teens safer drivers?

According to researchers at the Center for Injury and Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, scare tactics may not be the best way to educate your teen on the importance of practicing safe driving habits. Researchers recommend that instead of trying to frighten their kids, parents should help their children learn the skills they actually need to drive safely.

Positive reinforcement is the most effective way to get people to adopt positive behaviors, and it’s much easier to teach someone a behavior they feel capable of mastering than trying to teach your teen not to do something. Making your teen feel confident about their driving, instead of repeatedly scaring them about what horrible things could happen while they’re behind the wheel, will help them become less nervous and more competent when driving.

Researchers recommend that parents take a very slow route when teaching their children how to drive. For example, parents should start driving lesson off in a vacant parking lot, away from other cars and pedestrians, and deliberately provide instruction about the very basics of driving. Parents should then practice each step, such as how to start, stop, and drive in a straight line, over and over with their child prior to moving on to the next step.

Talk with your teen about what to do during different scenarios they might encounter while driving. Around 43 percent of teen accidents are caused because they fail to recognize hazards on the road. Provide your teen tips with what to do when approaching an accident, when another car swerves in front of them or cuts them off, and how to respond to emergency vehicles. The more information your teen has, the better prepared they’ll be for what they encounter on the road.

Parents should also consider carefully who they allow in the car when their teen is driving. Teenagers are twice as likely to get into a fatal accident when another teen is in the car, and five time more likely when more than one teen rides along. Fortunately, teens are statistically at their lowest risk of an accident when a parent is riding along in the car, so parents may want to consider a longer learning phase with their teen prior to allowing them to drive on their own.