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Parental Guidelines for Teen Driving Privileges: The Family Driving Contract

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

The best way for parents and teens to come to a mutual understanding about driving privileges, and the requirements necessary to retain those privileges, is to develop a family driving contract. A driving contract communicates a fundamental understanding between parents and youth that driving is a privilege, not a right guaranteed to them simply because they possess a driver's license. Driving contracts are perfect for families with teen drivers under 18 years old, because parents are the legal guardians of those youth. However, driving contracts are also appropriate for older youth still living at home who use their parents' car, or are otherwise financially dependent upon their parents. If a 21-year-old college student is driving a car that is owned and paid for by his parents, it's perfectly reasonable for his parents to require a driving contract to establish the rules governing this privilege. Youth of all ages need to understand that there are rules they must follow to retain their driving privileges and to continue to enjoy the freedom and independence that comes from the benefit of having this driving privilege. The driving contract should include both non-negotiable safety rules, as well as negotiated agreements surrounding such things as who pays for what, and how the family car(s) are to be shared.

At the very minimum, a family driving contract should include the requirement that youth follow the state's driving laws and should specifically mention these legal requirements to ensure youth are fully aware of the laws. For instance, the contract should mention the rules governing their learner's permit or intermediate license: e.g., driving with supervision with a learner's permit, returning home with the car at the time specified for nighttime driving restrictions, and limiting the number of teen passengers. The driving contract should also include all driver safety laws: wearing seatbelts at all times, no driving while intoxicated, no texting or cell phone use, etc.

Although every state may not have laws governing texting or cell phone use while driving, parents need to remember that they can create rules that are stricter than state laws, especially if they feel that their youth's skills are insufficiently learned, or if their maturity warrants less freedom. For example, an immature youth may feel reluctant to ask their passengers to wear a seatbelt. Therefore, the contract might specify that the car shall not be operated until every passenger has buckled their seatbelts. This allows the youth to comfortably tell their passengers they must wear their seatbelts. Parents may want to create rules that will limit as many distractions as possible: no eating while driving, no talking or texting on phones, no fixing makeup, no changing a CD or song on the MP3 player, and no loading GPS maps or addresses. Each of these distracting activities can take youth's attention away from the road and even a moment's distraction can lead to a deadly mistake.

The contract should also strictly prohibit driving while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs; not only is it illegal, but it's extremely dangerous and deadly. Here again, the contract may need to be more strict than state laws. Youth may mistakenly believe they're safe to drive because they "just had one," or because they're "just buzzed," and are not intoxicated. However, it's important for them to understand that any amount of substance is "too much." Driving while using any amount, of any drug or alcohol, should be immediate grounds for youth to lose driving privileges for an extended period of time. However, it is equally important for youth to know that if they make the mistake of drinking or experimenting with drugs, or find themselves riding in a car with someone who has been drinking or experimenting with drugs, they can call home and get a ride home with no questions asked. This is often called the lifesaver or safety plan. This way, teens know that they can get home safely without risking their life; or, the wrath of their parents.

Beyond these non-negotiable rules, parents may also want to include other rules about driving. Families that have several drivers may need to come up with a plan for sharing the car(s), and determine how competing requests to use the car will be prioritized. For example, parents may want to make sure everyone in their household recognizes that parents' needs take first priority and that work and medical appointments trump recreational activities. In some families, the teen that gets to use the car must also give siblings rides to their regularly planned activities or events for that day.

Parents and youth need to decide who is responsible for the financial costs of owning and operating a vehicle such as car loan payments, gasoline, auto insurance, and vehicle maintenance. While every family will have their own financial needs and values, it is important for youth to learn that driving privileges have significant costs associated with them and youth should learn to shoulder some financial responsibility in return for those privileges. For some families this responsibility will be met by paying a fair and reasonable portion of the auto expenses. For other families this responsibility might be met by meeting certain academic requirements, or by performing certain chores. Families will need to develop an agreement that seems reasonable and fair for everyone.

For example, Bethany, age 17, gets a part-time job after school as a waitress at the local diner. Her parents want her to save the money she earns for her college expenses next year. In order to get to and from her job, Bethany needs reliable transportation. Mom agrees to buy Bethany a sensible, basic, older used car and agrees to make the car payments, pay for any maintenance work, and agrees to pay for one half the insurance premium. In return for this generous offer Bethany agrees to put her paycheck into a savings account for college, while her tips may be used for spending money. She also agrees to pay for all the gas she uses in the car, plus one half the insurance premium. Alternatively, Mom might agree to pay for all the insurance provided Bethany keeps her grades above a 3.0 grade point average. This arrangement would teach Bethany that she must be responsible in order to retain driving privileges and emphasizes that her driving privileges are tied to the important goal of college attendance.

Beyond setting up the rules and expectations for driving, a family driving contract needs to identify the consequences for failing to meet the rules and requirements of the contract. Once again, parents need to establish consequences that match the severity of the rule infraction and that highlight the importance of the rule. For example, Erica is age 16, with an intermediate driving license and nighttime driving curfew of 9 p.m. If Erica arrives home one evening at 9:30 p.m. Mom may remove Erica's driving privileges for two days. However, if Erica accidentally backs into the neighbor's mailbox with Mom's car because she was searching for her ringing phone in her purse, Erica may have a stiffer penalty. She may have to pay the deductible to fix Mom's bumper with earnings from her part-time job, and she will lose her driving privileges until she does. Furthermore, she may be required to speak to her neighbor about a fair arrangement for repairing the mailbox pole, perhaps agreeing to perform some extra yard work for the neighbor. On the other hand, a more serious offense, such as walking into the house with alcohol on her breath, requires a very severe consequence; perhaps Erica would lose her driving privileges for 3 months. For more information about drinking and driving please refer the section on alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use

Some youth express an interest in driving motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes, personal water craft (PWC), snowmobiles, and other motorized recreational vehicles. These vehicles can be very appealing to youth because riding and racing in these vehicles can definitely cause an adrenalin rush. However, since these vehicles offer drivers and passengers far less protection than an automobile, these vehicles can be extremely dangerous, particularly for youth. Moreover the competitive sports culture associated with many of these recreational vehicles often encourage and reward a high degree of risk-taking. Parents may want to think carefully before they agree to allow their youth to apply for a license, or to learn to operate these vehicles. If parents do decide to allow a teen to operate one of these vehicles, they should also make sure that youth follow any state laws governing the licensing, training, and locations where these vehicles may be operated. Parents should also make sure that youth always wear proper safety equipment such as helmets, pads, or other protective gear that is recommended or required by law.