Teen driving safetyWe admit it: at first we thought the idea of a safe-driving contract with our teens seemed cold. But as parents of two teen drivers, we share concerns about how much our kids understand the dangers of the road and the consequences of poor judgment behind the wheel. There’s no question that operating a motor vehicle is our teens’ most serious responsibility, so we’ve decided to take a second look, both professionally and personally.

Creating a contract with a young driver does three important things: it takes some emotion out of an important and necessary discussion with your teenager; it says clearly that teens are accountable for their actions; and a well-written contract explains, up front, exactly what behavior is expected. An additional benefit is that by putting it all on paper and discussing the issues, parents can be more confident that teens have completely heard and understand all that’s been said to them.

While contracts can cover any topic from curfews and academics to room-cleaning and use of the family car, we feel there are benefits to creating a contract that specifically covers safe driving. What does one look like? It’s a simple written document, composed and signed by parents and teenagers, which outlines a set of expectations—and a set of consequences if those expectations are not met.

Top on our list of points to include are:

  • be aware of and obey traffic laws and speed limits
  • always wear seat belts (passengers, too)
  • do not drink or use drugs
  • don’t drive when you’re tired, angry, or upset
  • limit the number of passengers
  • do not use cell phones or text while you’re driving
  • give parents notice about taking a car and where you’re going

We think good optional points might include who’ll pay for gas and car maintenance, or the penalty for missing a curfew. Some parents make driving privileges contingent upon maintaining a certain GPA, having a job, or the timely completion of chores, but for contracts to be most effective, it’s important to keep them on track and to the point.

Tips for Creating a Driving Contract

  1. Don’t try to cover too much. Remember that part of your goal with a safe-driving contract is to make your teen aware of the points you consider most important. By focusing the contract on those points, you focus your teen’s attention on them as well.
  2. Make it simple. Write the contract in clear, simple language that’s easy to understand and remember. Number each point, keep it to one clear sentence if possible, and write in the first person. For example, “1) I will never transport more than ___ passengers in the car.”
  3. Be specific. Each point should state clearly what will happen if rules are broken. Teens can help determine appropriate penalties; for example, a speeding ticket could mean temporary loss of driving privileges, payment of the ticket, and any resulting insurance payment increases.
  4. Do it together. Parents should have a good idea of what needs to be incorporated in a safe-driving contract beforehand, but the contract will be most effec­tive if you include your teen in the drafting process.
  5. Make it official. It may seem an unnecessary formality, but it’s important for both parents and teens to sign and date the document to show they’re in agreement, then save it in a safe place. For more help, visit the website of your car insurance company.

Many companies, including the Automobile Association of America (AAA) offer online tools and information to help pareants work with their teen drivers. Some offer a downloadable sample contract, which you can use as is or modify to spell out your own family rules. AAA's website TeenDriving.aaa.com has a sample teen-driving agreement, as well as guidelines for young drivers and tips for parents.

Take the Driving Contract Seriously

Even if you agree with all the above, there’s a downside to a contract with your teen driver. One that’s poorly worded, unenforced, or missing key points can be useless. Perhaps worse, teens can easily ignore it. So if you’re going to create a contract with your teen, do so seriously. Be sure both parties sign and agree to live by the agreement. By treating the agreement seriously, you show your teen that you also intend to treat the penalties seriously.

Every teen is different and not all need a safe-driving contract, but such agreements are excellent for young drivers who need structure to help remind them of the important rules of safe driving. Addi­tionally, the act of creating and signing a contract can provide invaluable face-to-face time for parents and their teen drivers. In those cases, the agreement provides a vehicle for serious discussion of topics teens might otherwise perceive—and then ignore—as a parent telling them “one more thing” to do. By having your young driver participate in the creation of the contract points and penalties, you get him to think and talk seriously about safety issues that are too frequently ignored or taken for granted.

As study after study (and day-to-day living) confirm, driving is as serious as life and death. A safe-driving contract can help parents communicate important safety concepts with teens and be more confident that teens hear and understand their parents’ concerns.

Bookie McDonough is a licensed social worker. Andy McDonough is a former public school educator, education consultant, and freelance writer. They live in New Jersey.