Teenage Driving Safety

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for US teens. Sixty-one percent of teen passengers are killed while riding with a teen driver. In response to those two statements, most US states and territories have adopted GDL laws. GDL is the acronym for Graduated Driver Licensing. While GDL does not guarantee your teen will not be involved or injured in a crash, there are ways that help evaluate the teen driver’s maturity and experience that may increase his or her safety.

I am an injury prevention educator for a local hospital and teach youth and parents how to utilize GDL components effectively. In an effort to reach more parents with this important information, I am sharing much of what I teach through a series of articles.

If you have a teen itching to learn to drive, familiarizing yourself with the GDL in your area will be one of the most important laws to understand. However thinking beyond the GDL requirements and restrictions is essential for increasing teen driver safety. Parents are the key to teen driver safety when they know which ‘knowledge lock’ to open.

GDL focuses on building the bare minimum of driving skills along with some specific restrictions but utilizing GDL effectively is more complicated than you may realize.

Teens want to be good drivers; expect to be good drivers; are more than capable of developing good vehicle operation and driving skills when provided access to well-practiced driving experience, but teaching a teen to drive is not just about desire, vehicle operation, driving skills and experience.

The complication lies in the fact that a sixteen year old is highly disadvantaged with the driving piece due to human brain maturation, specifically the pre-frontal cortex.

The pre-frontal cortex of the brain becomes operational around the age of twelve or thirteen, reaching most of its maturity by the mid-to late twenties. The pre-frontal cortex of the brain is largely responsible for judgment, reason, and logic and decision-making, all of which is required for safe driving.

The synapse in a teenage brain do not connect in the same way as in an adult brain which is the answer to why teens say they “don’t know” when a parent asks, “What were you thinking?” Teens do not want to make mistakes but the immature brain development does not always help them make good decisions.

Pre-frontal Cortex Maturation Guidelines

There are four reasonable expectations for measuring the maturation of the pre-frontal cortex to consider before licensing a youth.

  1. Youth who refuse to wear safety gear when going faster than they can walk or run should not be considered for licensure
  2. Youth who require being reminded to complete homework or chores do not have suitable maturation to take on the responsibilities of the driving privilege
  3. Youth with behavior problems need a safe and controlled environment to work out the angst…a vehicle is NOT a safe and controlled environment
  4. Only license youth who are successful at keeping agreements i.e. if they say they will be home at a certain time but do not call to re-negotiate the terms they are not successful with keeping agreements

Considerations for Driving Requirements Beyond Vehicle Operation

A driver utilizes approximately 1500 skills–among them are perception, observation, interpretation and anticipation skills all of which develop in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain and necessary for safe driving.

The reason you find yourself hitting the ‘artificial brake’ when riding with your teen driver is that teens mistakenly believe the driving environment is the immediate area surrounding the vehicle. Guaranteed…if they saw what you are reacting to, they would hit the brake too! But if they don’t see it, they won’t react. Teen drivers have to be taught to ‘scan the driving environment’. While you are driving ask them questions about the behavior of vehicles you observe as one way to help them develop necessary scanning skill. Example: Did you see that car signal for the last ten blocks but make a different maneuver?

Provide driving lessons that focus on well-practiced experience. ‘Well-practiced’ means: To develop a good habit it must be executed correctly at least twenty-one times successively.

Most GDL laws have three stages to licensing


  1. Minimum Age and Duration of Permit
  2. Required Supervised Driving Hours
  3. Intermediate
  4. Minimum age for Licensure
  5. Nighttime Driving Restriction
  6. Passenger Restriction

Full Privilege

It looks easy, but meeting the basic legal minimum requirements are not adequate for teen drivers. Keep in mind just because something is legal, it doesn’t make it safe.

Example: Let’s say your state requires a minimum of 100 hours of supervised driving practice when the teen does not take a formal driver’s education class. Let’s say the teen is logging the 99th hour but you still find yourself:

  • Holding on to the seat or arm handle; Gasping; Hitting the artificial brake
  • Pointing things out like, “I notice you are driving too close to the car in front of you.”

If you stick with the only the legal requirements of GDL and license the youth who do you think is going to be pointing things out to him if YOU are not in the vehicle? To measure driving readiness for basic vehicle operation and traffic awareness, work with the young driver until:

  1. You no longer need to point anything out
  2. You no longer feel like holding on or gasping
  3. You no longer need to hit the artificial brake

Next time: Curfew and Passenger Restriction

Katherine E. Ackerman

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