My youngest just got his learner's permit. Here we go again. Logging 50 hours of supervised driving time, an Illinois requirement, takes a lot of time, patience and courage. Now is the time to take advantage of your motivated and captive audience and make clear everything you think is important about driving. Take special care to communicate the enormous responsibility of a driver.
My friend's son had his license for less than two weeks when he crashed his girlfriend's car. Thankfully, the car was the only causality. Now what? In that moment of panic and relief, my friend was left trying to determine how to respond. A crisis is not the optimal time to consider consequences. As soon as your child is ready to get behind the steering wheel, they need to understand both the rules of the road and the rules of your house. We as parents are being irresponsible if we fail to aggressively set the stage regarding the seriousness and the potential liabilities our adolescents are facing as young drivers. A car is a weapon. Careless driving too often leads to injury or death and lives are changed forever.
Driving today is more challenging than ever. We are sharing the roads with more and more vehicles, bike lanes, bus lanes and pedestrians. And everyone is on a cell phone! I cannot count the number of times I have seen a cyclist on their phone. A pedestrian stepping off of the curb with their head down as they text is commonplace. On the highway, the number of people navigating stop-and-go traffic while checking their phones is frightening. We need to take advantage of the moment when our new drivers are learning to teach them the realities of driving today and instill in them the skills and habits to protect them.
I created a driver's contract for my children outlining my rules and expectations. This document is an amalgam of ideas from my insurance company, the local police, a close friend who happens to be an ex-cop and my own brain. It covers everything I could possibly anticipate relative to navigating the roads for the first time from the driver's seat. The contract covers general principles reminding my children of rules of the road and our city's curfew expectations. It contains sections on the complete ban on the use of alcohol, drugs or cellphone while driving. Their responsibility for the car, the passengers and any tickets issued is addressed. Furthermore, it delves into those intangibles such as restrictions on driving while late or emotionally upset. Obviously, I won't always be present when they are making a decision about driving, but laying out the impact of emotional upset on driving skills is relevant because they won't make that connection themselves. The first draft of the contract included off-limit areas as designated by me. No unauthorized highway driving for the first six months; an accident at high speeds has much more serious consequences. A section on riding with other young drivers is included. Limits are set not only on how many kids can ride with my young driver, but also expectations for them when they are the passenger... including the ability to call and get a ride with a parent no questions asked. Use of seat belts? Check! Expectation to help with driving younger siblings or picking up groceries? Check! Discussion of driving in inclement weather? Check!
Finally, I added one more layer for their protection and my peace of mind. I installed a tracking device on my car. The device monitors the car's location and speed. In the contract, I make the kids aware of this device and alert them to the fact the device may be used to check they are following the rules established in the contract. However, I also make clear the device is primarily intended to ensure their safety. In the past few years, it has proven both useful and comforting in navigating situations involving my own drivers. It comes in handy determining where a late child is when they can't call from the road, and it was also useful when major road construction rerouted my daughter and she became lost. She pulled over, called me and left me on speaker as I guided her home while tracking her progress on line.
The contract isn't perfect or foolproof. And it certainly can't ensure their safety on the road. However, it does do the following:
1. Creates an opportunity to sit down with your child to have a powerful conversation about the responsibility of driving a car.
2. Provides another forum for you to share your values with your child.
3. Helps your child consider scenarios and consequences they cannot anticipate without the experience you have.
In Illinois, for the first 12 months your teen has their license, the number of passengers is limited to one person under age 20, unless the passenger(s) is a sibling. My experience suggests most parents choose to ignore this law, despite the research clearly demonstrating a correlation between number of passengers (distractions) and accidents. In my family, this was a tough law to enforce, because my oldest carpooled with twins. Which one should he pick up? Which one should take the bus? It was inconvenient. My son found it irrational and stupid. Yet, the law is the law. We cannot choose which laws to follow for our new drivers. This is confusing for kids and creates potentially dangerous situations when they start to decide when and where laws are applicable or relevant to them. A minor accident when one kid isn't wearing a seatbelt because your child determined just this once they could fit seven kids in the car can result in tragedy.
I love having two drivers in the family; it is very liberating for a mom who spent years as an underpaid, overworked chauffeur. I am proud of the fact my oldest son both arranged for the repair and paid for the side view mirror to be reattached after he knocked it off in a narrow downtown parking garage, as per the contract. I am gratified my daughter navigated a recent accident when, after being rear-ended, she used her cell phone to photograph the damage, the other driver's ID, proof of insurance and license plate number. And truth be told, I am trying to enjoy these 50 hours in the car with my youngest.