Why there is no such thing as a safe teen driver

… and what parents must do before they hand over the keys


Gary S. Chapman / Getty Images

At 17, Reid Hollister had already shown himself to be a “smart driver,” says his father, Tim. “He never had any issues with confidence in where the vehicle was in the lane. He wasn’t a spastic driver. He was very coordinated.” There was, it seemed, no good reason to refuse him the car on that typical Friday in 2006. It wasn’t until several months later, after Reid died in a one-car crash “of speed and inexperience,” as Tim puts it, that the Connecticut father recognized the mistakes he’d made in handing his son the keys that December night. “I started to think, ‘Oh my God, why did I allow him to do that?’ ” he recalls. “What was I thinking—or not thinking—at the time?”

Those realizations prompted Hollister, a lawyer, to write Not So Fast: Parenting Your Teen Through the Dangers of Driving. “The book is not grief therapy,” he says in an interview. “The book is what I like to think of as public service.” It contains information gleaned while he served on a state task force in 2007 aimed at improving Connecticut’s teen driving laws. (Several adolescents died in crashes soon after Reid, which provoked an outcry.) The premise of the book is simple, if unsettling: “There is no such thing as a safe teen driver.” Teenagers are not, physiologically speaking, mature enough to get behind the wheel by themselves, research shows. “There are things about teen drivers that no amount of training can overcome,” says Hollister. “And both parent and teen need to understand that.”

Specifically, Hollister discovered that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of restraint and judgment, is the last piece that develops. And that can take until age 25—long after many adolescents start driving. What’s more, says Hollister, “it takes three to five years [of experience] before crash rates of new drivers come into the range that we consider relatively safe.” Compare that to the average 40 hours or so of driving required to get licensed in many places. “It’s a bat of an eyelash.” Compounding these risks is the tendency, proven in vision-sciences studies, of new drivers to look at “the perimeter of their own car” more than “down the road at the developing traffic situation,” he continues, “which is why we see teens getting into crashes—they don’t anticipate.”

Knowing all this, Hollister has devised ways for parents to better protect their adolescents. First, “act like an air traffic controller.” Get their destination, route, an alternative route, a timetable for their excursion and the names of passengers. Make a communication plan. Check the weather, and their alertness. Next, “make a ceremony” of giving the keys—perhaps keep them in a padlock—to bring “seriousness” to the occasion. Never let a teen driver joyride, because crashes are more likely than during “purposeful driving.” And consider installing a tracking device in the vehicle to ensure teens go where they claim. And above all, parents and teens should sign an agreement (Hollister wrote one), outlining how the car should be used, with penalties for violations.

These methods are familiar to Gary Direnfeld, a social worker in Dundas, Ont., who used to work at a brain rehab centre—where he saw first-hand the devastating effects of car crashes. By the time his son got his licence in the 1990s, Direnfeld had founded the “I Promise” program, which promotes a parent-teen driving agreement, too; it is downloaded 350 times a month. Direnfeld also instituted strict rules: His son couldn’t use the car between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., and he could only drive for specific purposes and with particular passengers. “Those are the issues that most correlate with the likelihood of a crash,” Direnfeld explains. “So if you can control for those to any degree, you’re improving your odds.”

This level of vigilance might sound too intense or tedious, given many parents “look forward to their children getting their licence because it emancipates them from chauffeuring,” says Direnfeld. They’re underestimating the risks. “There’s a myth out there: the degree to which I have a good kid, my child is less likely to be involved in a crash. There’s no data to support that. The operative issue is that they’re kids. They’re teenagers.” And that’s the danger.


Why there is no such thing as a safe teen driver

  1. Kids should learn to ride horses, spend several years riding horses, before learning to drive a car. And they should be physically fit before driving. Being overweight makes your thinking fuzzy on top of it all.

    • Not sure horse riding has much in the way of transferable skills, other than perhaps teaching some patience. The patience aspect certainly might be beneficial, I have to admit. OK, I guess I just talked myself into seeing the merit in your idea, even if I’m not convinced of the practicality of its universal application.

      • Patience is always a virtue of course, but is lack of it the biggest factor in teen auto accidents?

        It might be better to have them play even more hours of video games, to increase their reaction times (as I understand, slowed response is a major factor in a great deal of accidents, and drinking and driving is so dangerous in part because it slows reaction time).

        • An overestimation of reaction time, or the ability to avoid and accident at the last second, likely plays a much larger roll in accidents. We aren’t always going to be on 100%. People tend to zone out behind the wheel. We’ve all done it. Relying on razor sharp reaction time isn’t going to cut it when you’re a fraction of a second late in noticing something. Slowing down and being more patient would probably do more to avoid accidents than a slight increase in reaction times.

          • interesting but far from proven.

      • Very transferable skills. You have to keep your eyes peeled in all directions, all the time as you have to anticipate situations where a horse can spook and buck you off. You have to pay huge attention to safety, you’re basically manoeuvring a large animal between your hands and your legs and with your seat/back for control/balance. This wouldn’t be sitting on a trail horse like sitting on a sofa, but learning to ride in such a way that your seat, your core is strong enough to withstand any shocks, jumps, bucks etc. Look at Olympic jumpers, just for example, what they’re doing. Right after they land after a jump, their heads turn instantly to the next jump, that’s what they’re looking at as they make the curve, set the pace for the next jump.
        Not practical of course, but kids can learn to ride and jump/do dressage at a lower level, but in Canada we slaughter our ex-racehorses rather than putting them to good use like making children fit. But I digress.

        • Gee, I hope we’re not intruding while you talk about “manoeuvring” your horsey.

          Would you and horsey like to grab a room for half an hour, we can always come back to this later.

          • No, I’ll leave you to your coke, chips, pizza, computer and the big fat sofa you’ve become a part of.

        • Cars can’t spook, and if you get used to thinking your car CAN you could kill someone.

          • In fact, every single thing you mention in your list bears no relation to driving an automobile. No one ever survived a car accident because of strong abdominal muscles.

            If you think these skills are making you a good driver, you might very well be an unsafe driver.

          • You should know that athletes generally make better drivers. Better reflexes, and yes it most definitely helps to have a strong core in being a better driver.

            In fact, evidence now shows that if you’re an unfit fatass you’re going to have fuzzy thinking, and that doesn’t stop at 25, that continues for life.

          • Surely you don’t believe that riding around on some spavined, sway-back old hay burner makes you an “athlete.”

          • You’re completely missing the point. If your reflexes are sharp enough to catch a horse before he spooks, or as he spooks, preventing damage, then you’re a lot more likely to be able to handle something like a driver coming at you across a meridian, or swerving suddenly – or any number of weird situations that happen on the road. Think!

          • I’m beginng to wonder if you’ve ever even been behind the wheel of an automobile, quite frankly.

            Rural people have an unfortunate reputation as stupid. Don’t make it worse.

          • I live in the city of Calgary. Downtown core, to be precise. I have horses, I spend a lot of time at the university and art college, and I drive a car. Rural people might be stupid where you live, but they definitely aren’t stupid here. They take care of my horses for me. I’ll put your driving skills up against Ian Millar’s any day.

          • Calgary is rural. Look at those ridiculous hats.

    • Please share with readers where u got your
      Info on overweight teens and fuzzy thinking

  2. On top of this you have wealthier and absentee parents giving their teens the loot to install street racing modifications…

  3. Even many adult drivers fail to look down the road, and instead concentrate on the roadway immediately in front of their car.

  4. Experience is experience. Age on it’s own does not yield wisdom.

  5. Hollister’s child was reckless – either through inadvertance that could affect anyone or through poor upbringing. Many teens drive constantly and do not die in auto accidents.

    • And many people smoke without getting cancer. Teens have more accidents, and while experience plays a roll, it isn’t the only factor.

    • More likely many more teens drive
      Recklessly but are lucky enough not
      To die because of it.

      • Spot on. At age 50, I look back to my driving at ages 16-20 and wonder how I survived.

  6. Overestimating the risks of teen driving is equally dangerous. The steps suggested by Hollister sound so overbearing and I would question what “acting like an air traffic controller” would do for a teen’s confidence when learning to drive. Also, I can personally attest to the fact that I learned just as much (if not more) from joyriding as I did from purposeful driving.

    When learning to drive, my parents told us the risks while driving and gave tips on how to mitigate those risks. They created an environment where we could drive comfortably in a style that was closest to the way that we would drive when not in their presence. They also encouraged us to experiment and challenge our skills so that we could always work to improve.

    • Just thinking about two 18 year olds who were killed on Elbow Drive in Calgary – both nice kids, from wealthy families; both good drivers, driving in a pretty safe area of town — smashed into a light pole. I’m sure those parents wish they had instituted controls exactly as the article states them.

    • Not sure what definition of joyriding you are using, but usually it is associated with recklessness, speeding at the very least, which is not something to be proud of even if you don’t end up killing yourself or someone else.

  7. The “Ride and Drive with Care” program can offer some help here. (See: http://www.sharetheroad.ca/program-overview-s16265) By encouraging teen pre-drivers to cycle to/from school and around town, the program helps to develop better awareness and street skills related to traffic dynamics, situational judgement and decision making, and respect for other road users. When these teens start driving, they’ll do so with a better respect for all road users and for traffic situations.

    • Probably a much better idea than horse riding.

  8. If as the article indicates ‘ that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of restraint and judgment, is the last piece that develops’ then why all the raging policies about youth crime and punishment. Because teens just do not comprehend the consequences of their actions and show lack of judgement they need to be rehabilitated rather than sent to jail in order to get raped and mishandled by our justice system. This is not being soft on crime, but rather reacting adequately in the face of solid scientific research and evidence.

    • It would indeed be interesting to see the intersection on the venn diagram of “teens are too young to drive properly” vs. “teens should have more adult sentences”

      • What you have stated makes absolutely no sense. Venn diagrams are used to demonstrate the commonality of two different sets of variables. The article refers to scientific research associated with the cerebral development of humans over time .