Teenage drivers are notorious for their risky driving habits, and motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of deaths and disabilities in adolescents. How can we prevent these tragedies? How can we make teenagers acknowledge their own vulnerabilities and learn to make wiser decisions? Simply telling teens about the risks and rules of the road doesn't seem to do the job. They need to go beyond the facts and change both their attitudes and their behaviors. As role models, educators, and keepers of the car keys, parents can play a critical role in this process.

A recent study published in Pediatrics, looked at the relationship between different styles of parenting and the attitudes and actual track records of teen drivers. The researchers identified two key components of parenting: providing ground rules and monitoring the teen's activities and providing a supportive, empathic home environment. They found some parents provided rules/monitoring and support; some provided rules/monitoring but no support; and some gave support with few rules/monitoring. And there were also those who were uninvolved. The researchers assessed the driving behaviors and attitudes of 10th and 11th graders and looked at how these related to their parents' styles. The overall goal was to learn how to help parents be more effective in influencing teens' driving habits.

The teens whose parents provided both rules/monitoring and support had a significantly lower rate of crashes both as drivers and passengers than those with uninvolved parents.

The researchers found that parents really do make a difference. The teens whose parents provided both rules/monitoring and support had a significantly lower rate of crashes both as drivers and passengers than those with uninvolved parents. They were almost twice as likely to wear seatbelts and to express the conviction that they were important for safety. This group of teens, as well as the teens whose parents provided rules/monitoring but little support were less likely to report substance or alcohol use while driving and more likely than teens of uninvolved parents to view these practices as dangerous. Similarly, these two groups of teens avoided cell phone use and texting while driving and viewed it as dangerous, and they avoided speeding, racing, and showing off while driving.

The teens whose parents provided both rules/monitoring and support along with the teens whose parents only provided rules/ monitoring were better and safer drivers than those whose parents were permissive or uninvolved. The strongest positive impact was seen when both desirable parenting traits were present. The group whose parents provided rules without support was more likely to avoid the behaviors that were clearly illegal. These results are consistent with studies that have shown a positive effect on teens' decision making about substance use, initiation of sex, and school delinquency.

The clear message to parents is that they can make a difference in their teenagers' driving behaviors, and it may be a life−saving difference. Taking the attitude that the adolescent must "learn from her mistakes," "face the consequences of his actions," or simply "be responsible" is not appropriate when the risks are so great.

Although having an additional driver in the family can be helpful in our highly scheduled culture, parents should resist the temptation to let a teen solo before she is ready. Many states have graduated licenses that are designed to give the novice driver road experience while decreasing some of the risk. Such programs limit the hours during which a teen can drive, and limit the passengers who can accompany them. Parents may also consider writing up a "Driving Agreement" with their teen that specifically describes the rules and the consequences for infractions.

Two sources for such agreements are: the American Academy of Pediatrics http://www.aap.org/publiced/BR_TeenDriver.htm and the Automobile Club of Americahttp://www.aaa.com/automotive/TrafficSafety/parent−teen−driving−agreement.pdf.