Teen Driving: Parents Can Reduce the Risk

September 27, 2012

My neighbors across the street are busy: removing wallpaper, painting, tearing out old shrubs – and doing it all with 2 year old boy and daughter of 5 months. Watching them brings memories of me 20+ years ago tackling those projects—often doing so while keeping an eye on my kids playing in the yard.

But seeing a few teens speeding through the neighborhood prompted this long postponed article on something I know reasonably well: Teen Driving.

My law practice focuses primarily on accidents and injuries – plus some business litigation and nonviolent criminal cases. This mix, plus being a former municipal prosecutor, means a range of traffic citations land on my desk.

Far too many teens end up in trouble with cars. And many end in tragedy.

Parents: Times have changed and laws keep changing. Enforcement of OWI laws is up – and so the penalties. But there are things parents can – and should – do.

Start with a “Teen Driving Contract.” The Driving Contract (“the Contract”) is a contract between a teen and parents. The Contract sets out rules for use of a car, i.e., when the teen is driving, but also when riding in a friend’s car.

The Contract is a formal, written contract. By law, most parents “sponsor” their teen’s driver’s license and will have civil liability for accidents. But the Contract serves a much larger purpose. It sets out rules and expectations – and your teen’s acknowledgement of those rules/expectations – as a requirement for getting a license or using the family car.

Driving Contract samples are online. Google ‘Teen Driving Contract’ or go to wisconsindmv.gov, or you are welcome to download the Axley law firm Teen Driving Contract at axley.com. It’s there for your use.

However, just filling out a “contract” isn’t the answer. The true benefit of any contract is the discussion among the parties that takes place before the contract is ever signed. The Teen Driving Contract is no different. Obtain a sample contract, turn off the TV and cell phones; sit down and discuss the important details: speed limits, school zones, texting, cell phone usage, seat belts, what to do if there is an accident. And, of course, discuss drugs and alcohol. Talk candidly; avoid the lecture (which your teen is expecting). Invite your young driver to identify the problem areas of their concern, i.e., what does your teen see as risk areas?

Be realistic. Even the most trustworthy teen will encounter unplanned situations, friends, whatever, involving drugs or alcohol. You can’t be with them 24/7. Nor can we expect a teen to recognize at 7 p.m. all the risks likely to develop hours later when the party breaks up. Discuss what a teen should do if they’ve been drinking – or their friend has been drinking. The courts see numerous cases where a teen takes the wheel because a friend was “too drunk to drive.” Absolutely discuss this scenario.

A parent gave me this advice years ago and I recommend it: I call it the “Leave the Car/No Questions Asked” rule. It has two components.

First: agree in the Contract your teen can “leave the car” and call you to come and pick them up. Agree if your teen is in a situation where they shouldn’t drive, they can leave the car, call you, and you’ll pick them up and bring them home. You can retrieve the car the next day. The car is not important. Your teen is – but you know that. Second: “No Questions Asked” means you agree there will be no cross examination. Keep your word: if your child faces the embarrassment of calling you, in turn, you bury your frustration and respect them for making the right choice. And be sure to discuss this point: the rule applies whether they are driving or riding as a passenger. You do not want them driving, or riding with an impaired friend.

Be certain your teen understands “Leave the Car/No Questions Asked” rule eliminates all possible excuses for impaired driving. If parents and teens agree to “Leave the Car/No Questions Asked” your teen won’t be able to use the “I wanted to get out of there” or “I drove because he/she was too drunk to drive” excuses if stopped by the police. Likewise, discuss the fact that no judge or prosecutor ever accepts these explanations for an OWI or injury or death by motor vehicle charge. By all means, discuss this.

But make it the rule practical, “doable.” In my case, I have a taxi account at my office. My kids were given the right to leave the car and to call a taxi – even for friends. In your Contract, maybe allow them to call an aunt or uncle, or close family friend, etc. Discuss your teen’s options when he or she knows they should not be driving.

One final thought: The old “Temporary” or “Learners” permit days are gone. Wisconsin’s Graduated Driver’s License (“GDL”) law has very specific rules for teens. Your child likely knows the details, but parents should go to wisconsindmv.gov and be familiar with the GDL rules/limitations on passengers, hours of operation, etc.

Finally, think back to your teenage years. I suspect many of you were like me, totally oblivious to anxious nights parents spent waiting for their teen to pull into the driveway, home and safe. But the stakes are higher now, the risks greater. Discussing the terms of a Teen Driving Contract is one approach toward curtailing those risks and, it is not an overstatement to suggest it might avoid a tragedy or even save a life.

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For more information about "Teen Driving: Parents Can Reduce the Risk," contact John Walsh at jwalsh@axley.com or 608.283.6709.