A parent wrote to me recently requesting some help. This weekend her 16 1/2 yr old daughter will be taking the road test for her coveted drivers license, and barring any 3 point turn mistake (my downfall on my first test) her daughter will be a member of our driving community. The mom's main concern is how to enforce the current law here in Massachusetts, and I'm sure in many other states, that bars newly licensed teens from carting around their friends for the first 6 months of driving from the date of licensing, and how to feel confident that her daughter will always wear her seatbelt and make sure that all passengers (including illegal friends) wear their seatbelts.
Obviously, when you send your teen off in your car you are giving them a leap, a giant leap of faith. You have lectured, and lectured and lectured some more about all the rules, and they have yes'd you to death that they will follow them. But really, who knows? I hope I can help a little with these very realistic fears.
Lets tackle the seatbelt issue first. Observation will be your best evaluator of seat belt usage. Whenever your teen gets in the car, do you have to remind him/her to put on their seatbelt? If so, this is a sign they are not ready to drive alone. The first requirement is to see that your teen, un-reminded and automatically puts on their seatbelt as soon as they get into the car, either as the driver or as a passenger. Let them know that this most basic rule is a pre-requisite for taking out the family car. This includes paying attention to not only their seatbelt, but also any other passengers in the car including you and or their siblings that may be going along for the ride. To test their awareness of their passengers, every now and then, leave your buckle or your passenger's buckles undone. Has your teen done a quick glance around to all passengers before they start the car to assure seatbelt compliance. This is good practice. Let your pre-driving teen know that there is zero tolerance on this issue. And that until you sense that it is now second nature for them to buckle up as well being on top of their passenger's seatbelts, there will be no taking out the family car alone. This is an easy one, because either you have to keep reminding them or you don't, and if you don't than they are good to go!
Now, the real challenge, how to enforce the no-passenger rule. As your teen will tell you: "that's a stupid rule and nobody pays attention to it. Everybody drives with their friends in the car." Unfortunately they are right, not that the rule is stupid, but that all the kids do it. This is a powerful disincentive for your teen to follow the law. If a teen gets caught driving by the police, usually it's when they get a speeding ticket or have rolled through a stop sign or are out driving past your town's curfew, and have other kids illegally in their car, then they lose their license until they are 18. Unfortunately not enough teens get caught, and so most kids think the whole law thing is a joke.
First, do not give a mixed message on this by agreeing that it is a stupid law, even if you think it is. It is a law, and teens are into black and white thinking. Either you think it is fair and right or you think it is stupid too. So if you, in any way, give voice to your own ambivalence in front of your teen, you have lost this war. Their defense will ALWAYS be "well my parents said it was OK!" What you can do is use an 'I get it" moment. saying: " I get you think this rule is stupid, and that all your friends just ignore it. I get your friends will want rides when you have the car. You will want to give them rides and I get it will be hard for you to say no. We need to come up with a plan so that when this happens, which will probably be every time you have the car, you can have something to say that discourages everyone from wanting to ride with you. This will be something that you alone are responsible for, and we get it will be really hard, but new drivers are inexperienced, and vulnerable to distraction, and we want you to be safe. You also need to know that if you are caught by the police, or by us, or by one of our friends who we have alerted to let us know if they see you driving with friends in the car, you will lose your driving privilege until age 17 when you can carry passengers. So if you choose to allow kids in the car, you are risking your ability to drive at all. Now lets come up with a plan."
At this point, you can come up with some suggestions of things they might say to their friends when put in this position for giving rides." I can't my parents are like Nazi's and they are checking my mileage. All they do is figure out the mileage where I say I am going, and if the mileage doesn't match up they are not letting me drive. They are assholes, but I don't want to lose my license, sorry, I just can't." You don't really have to do this, but it gives your teen a very important face-saving out. Basically you want together to concoct a story they can give to their friends, that will make you the bad guys, and give them the script for getting out of the situation. The truth is they probably will still take kids from time to time, but maybe less than if they had a plan to help them get out of it. Remember, that just saying to them: "you better not take any passengers" is not helpful, you have to acknowledge how hard it can be, and help them with a strategy!.
Also you do not want them talking, dialing, or texting on their phone ever in the car. This is life saving. This means YOU SHOULD NOT BE CALLING THEM WHEN YOU KNOW THEY MAY BE DRIVING. Instead give them the responsibility of having to call or text you before or after they start to drive. If they do not take this on as a serious responsibility of taking your car, it is very simple, they do not take the car...period! Let them know that you will be checking the texting times when they are in the car, let them know you have access to these online, and will make sure that they are not texting and driving. Be very very clear about this. This texting and driving should scare the SHIT out of you. You need to scare the SHIT out of them.
Six months to a year before they get their learner's permit, you should start a no-texting in the car policy. They need to start to feel what it is like to be in your car without texting. Behavior does not just change overnight because you said so. It takes practice!! When your teen is a passenger in your car and sitting in the front seat, no texting. If they are motivated to get their license then they will comply. If they aren't so motivated, they won't. And this is an easy one for you. No license until they prove to you in a consistent way that they can delay text, snap and any other social networking gratification!!
Driving is a right of passage. It is the best thing that could ever happen to a teen. I know it was the best thing that ever happened to me, but life with cellphones, and Itunes, and texting and tweeting makes the new driving teens a much more complicated activity. Take it one drive at a time! And by the way, don't forget to ask them to pick up milk on the way home!