Parent-Teen Driving Agreements: An Underutilized Tool for Teen Driver Safety

By Tim Hollister Posted May 24, 2016 under Guest Authors

Written agreements are one of the foundations of our society. We manage our most important relationships and endeavors by putting terms and conditions into agreed-upon words, and then signing our names as a symbol of our commitment to carry out the stated understandings and promises. By creating written agreements with our teens, we can define expectations and manage risks.

One example of an agreement between parents and teens is a parent-teen driving agreement (PTDA). One of the most important purposes of a PTDA is to allow parents to establish rules for teen drivers that exceed a state's teen driving laws or fill in the gaps of a state's rules. State teen driving laws vary widely from regulations around passengers allowed in the vehicle to use of cell phones. You can learn about your states specific laws here. By using a customized PTDA, families can establish standards that go beyond a state's lenient provisions and bring the rules for their household into better alignment with established teen driver safety research and best practices. 

All PTDAs should avoid the use of bare-bones wording that doesn't adequately explain the risks of teen driving or detail the rules that the agreement is trying to establish. It’s also important to avoid wordiness that tries to sound legal, but instead adds unnecessary confusion. Instead, the language should be 100% clear both the parent and teen. 

Below is a list of topics that should be included in every agreement, and why:

  1. Time Period: The agreement should be in effect for a defined minimum period of time. Teen driving safety research suggests one year from when the teen becomes a licensed driver (that is, authorized to drive solo) as a reasonable period of time. 
  2. Parent's Overriding Authority: The agreement should state that parents are ultimately responsible for the safety of their teens, and that supervision of teen driving requires day-by-day judgment, because circumstances can suddenly arise that would make driving on a particular day or at a particular time unsafe. A parent needs to have on-the-spot license suspension authority.
  3. Driving Plan: Teen driving experts emphasize that supervision of teen drivers is a daily undertaking that has three parts: (a) the teen must ask for permission to drive each and every time; (b) permission should be granted only after parent and teen go through a safety checklist (destination, route, timetable, weather, passengers, and fatigue); and (c) only “purposeful” driving (driving to a destination for a specific purpose) should be allowed, while “joyriding” (teens in the car for fun, with no destination or timetable) should be prohibited.
  4. Seat Belts: A simple, clear seat belt requirement, no exceptions, is an essential PTDA provision. The teen driver must wear his or her seat belt at all times, and must require every passenger to wear one as well.
  5. Speeding and Rules of the Road: It should go without saying that every teen driver will obey traffic laws and signs, as well as the “rules of the road,” such as who has the right-of-way (confusion about this is a major cause of crashes among teen drivers).
  6. Cellphones and Electronic Devices: The dangers of sending text messages and using hand-held cell phones while driving are well-documented, which is why the majority of states ban both for teen drivers. However, research also shows that hands-free and voice-activated devices can cause distraction. In addition, many new car models feature dashboard-mounted screens with a variety of interactive features and controls that have raised concerns about distraction. In a PTDA, the goal should be “zero tolerance” for distraction from cellphones and electronic devices that are unrelated to the safe operation of the vehicle.
  7. Curfews/Night Driving: A definitive time, without a grace period, is essential. Most state curfew laws have exceptions, such as school-related activities or employment; each family needs to judge whether teens may need to invoke one of the exceptions (such as, the teen has a late evening job). If a teen will be using one of these exceptions, the PTDA should recognize this.
  8. Passengers: Teen passengers of teen drivers are probably the least understood danger of teen driving. Strict limits on teen passengers during the first year (at least) of licensed driving are a must. While recognizing state law as the baseline, passenger provisions in a PTDA are an opportunity for parents to customize the agreement by establishing a stricter standard than state law. This passenger provision can be further customized to address when a teen driver may transport family members and siblings.
  9. Alcohol or Drug Use, and Fatigue: Every PTDA should say that a teen will “never drive under the influence of alcohol.” PTDAs should also be sure to address substances that are unlawful or impairing (interfere with reflexes, vision, or reaction time). It is important for parents to think through this topic thoroughly as there are legal substances, such as over-the-counter cough medicine, which can cause side effects that might impair driving when taken against labeling instructions or abused. Drowsiness may be the most difficult factor for a parent to monitor (or a teen to recognize or admit) as it can change from day to day. A PTDA should contain a statement acknowledging fatigue as a joint teen-parent responsibility.
  10. Suspension of Driving Privileges: A critical decision is whether the teen will lose his or her privilege of driving solo, or driving altogether if the PTDA is violated. Will the consequence be to revert to learner's permit mode? There are two schools of thought here. One is that teens need on-the-road experience, and suspending all driving interferes with continued training. Another is that misconduct should result in no driving at all. It is also important to consider how the teen, under a suspension, will get to school, a job, or activities. Some parents will say, “You lost your license, you find a ride.” However, the teen then might try to find a ride with a peer in a way that would violate the state's passenger restrictions. 
  11. Call for Safe Ride: To balance the parent override, the agreement should also state that driving privileges will not be suspended if a teen calls for a ride to avoid an unsafe situation.
  12. Costs of Driving: The cost of driving (everything from the costs of gas to the cost of insurance) is an important lesson for parents to teach their teen drivers.
  13. Monitoring Technology: If a parent can afford to install one of the evolving technologies for tracking teen drivers, this should be written into the agreement.
  14. Mediator: This provision may be most useful for single-parent households, where a trusted intermediary, such as a relative or neighbor, might be needed if parent and teen disagree or reach a standstill about a particular situation.

Using a parent-teen driving agreement that incorporates family customizations and best practices is an important, albeit underutilized, tool for making teen driving safer. A model agreement that you can work off of can be found here. Have you considered creating a PTDA for your family? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Timothy Hollister is the author of Not So Fast: Parenting Your Teen Through the Dangers of Driving (Chicago Review Press, 2013). Tim became an advocate for safer teen driving after his seventeen-year-old son, Reid, died in a one-car driving accident in 2006. Tim’s blog, From Reid’s Dad, which supports his son’s memorial fund. You can connect with Tim on Facebook and Twitter.