AAA Study Finds That Parents Consider Most Teens Unprepared For Driving

Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker

STATE—In advance of National Teen Driver Safety Week (October 17-23), the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released the first naturalistic study using in vehicle cameras to capture teenage drivers and their parents during their supervised driving phase.

Nearly half (47 percent) of parents in the study reported that after the yearlong learner’s stage, there was still at least one condition in which they did not feel comfortable letting their teen drive. Yet, more than one-third (37 percent) of these families allowed their teen to obtain a license within a month of being eligible, although a few families restricted driving in certain scenarios.


“It’s clear from these findings that both parents and teens need to be better prepared for the supervised driving phase. We need to find ways to equip parents with the knowledge and tools to make their teens safer drivers,” said Tracy Noble, spokesperson for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

The study found that the average amount of weekly driving varied greatly among families, ranging from just twenty minutes to almost five hours. Sixty-eight percent of parents reported that opportunities to drive together were limited by busy schedules of both parents and teens. Teens averaged just over an hour and a half of supervised driving per week, mostly on routine trips along the same routes—meaning few teens gained significant experience in more challenging situations, such as driving in inclement weather or in heavy traffic. After a full year of driving:

·        One in three parents said they still didn’t consider their teen ready to drive unsupervised in heavy traffic or on the highway.

·        One in five didn’t think their teen was ready to drive unsupervised in the rain.

“Driving in a variety of settings is the best way to build competence; starting early and practicing often can make the crucial difference between being a tentative novice driver or one capable of handling challenging and unavoidable driving scenarios,” said Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation. “Until now, there’s been almost no scientific research on what parents actually do while supervising their teens’ driving. This study reinforces that parents are ideally positioned to assess their teen’s early driving ability and provide invaluable training and guidance during this critical time.”

Studies have shown that the first few years of unsupervised driving are the most dangerous. By studying how teens learn and how they are taught we can find ways to shape better drivers—keeping teens and those they share the roads with safer.

“Parents should ask themselves: Do I want my teen to learn how to handle bad weather, darkness, rush hour traffic or narrow rural roads without me in the car?” said Arthur Goodwin, the report’s primary investigator and a Senior Research Associate with the University of North Carolina (UNC) Highway Safety Research Center.

Although graduated driver license (GDL) systems vary by state, most require at least six months of supervised driving for beginners; several states require up to a year. During the supervised stage of GDL, the research showed parents need to:

·        Ensure ample practice in all driving situations—including frequent practice at night, in bad weather, in heavy city traffic, on rural highways and on busy interstates.

·        Share their driving “wisdom” to help teens spot dangers that aren’t obvious and see the “big picture.” Parents should use “I” statements, explaining what they would do in critical situations, so teens will be more likely to listen and remember.

·        Teach teens to drive defensively, be wary of other drivers and anticipate the unexpected things they might do. For example, “Even when I have a green light, I always glance both ways to make sure other cars are stopping, because sometimes they don’t.”

New Jersey’s current GDL law does not address the type of practice driving required; however, recently introduced legislation—A-3309—would expand supervised driving requirements, increasing the phase to one year, driving hours to 50 (including 10 nighttime hours), and require a parent-teen orientation prior to the start of the supervised driving phase. This orientation would provide the teens and parents (or supervising adult) with tools to ensure that the supervised driving period is beneficial to both the teen and the parents, providing a better understanding of the GDL laws and tips for how to teach teens the skills needed.

“In looking at the research and in talking to parents, we have found that parents are looking for tools to make them better teachers during this phase of their teens lives,” Noble said. “A-3309 will provide these resources to them, both through the more structured practice driving requirements and by providing an orientation to answer all those questions parents have but don’t know where to turn.

“By requiring teens to practice driving during less than ideal situations, we are preparing them to be safer drivers in all conditions,” Noble added.

The AAA Foundation commissioned the UNC Highway Safety Research Center to conduct the study. The initial phase concluded in January 2010 and the second phase will conclude this fall as researchers continue tracking teens once they obtain their provisional license. Ultimately, the study will shed light on how teens handle the high-risk transition to independent driving and provide insight on the nature of distractions facing newly licensed teen drivers.

AAA offers online tools and information to help parents work with their teen drivers. The motor club’s new website,, helps parents and teens manage the complex learning-to-drive process by providing them with New Jersey-specific information that they need based on the teen’s progress toward licensure.

The site features AAA StartSmart, a series of online lessons and newsletters based on the National Institutes of Health’s Checkpoints program, which has been proven to help parents improve teen driver safety and is being offered nationally for the first time. Launched this summer, the site also offers lessons from the motor club’s Teaching Your Teen To Drive program, which assists families that are or will soon be learning to drive.

For more information about the teen driving study or to see the full report and video footage, visit

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