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Why Teaching Your Teen Defensive Driving Skills Matters

“Isn’t that just to get out of a traffic ticket?”

“What’s wrong with just driving safely?”

“I’m a good driver.”

“I’ve never been in a wreck.”

“That sounds lame.”

“Whatever, Dad.”

If you are a parent of teenagers, there is a good chance that you will hear these responses (and possibly more!) when you bring up the topic of defensive driving. Nevertheless, you can and should be talking to your teens about defensive driving and why it matters.

Statistics show that young drivers are especially high risk for crashes that can result in severe or fatal injury, particularly where distracted driving is involved.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), over 36,000 people were killed in traffic crashes in the United States in 2019, and over 3,000 people were killed by distracted driving that same year. The NHTSA reported that 2,121 people were killed in crashes involving teen drivers age 15-18 in 2018, while in 2017 alone there were 3,255 teen drivers age 15-19 involved in fatal crashes.

As injury lawyers, we see more than our fair share of the aftermath of serious automobile collisions. The sober truth is that understanding what defensive driving is and how to incorporate it into daily driving is the best way to reduce your teenager’s risk of being involved in an automobile collision; especially a severe or fatal one.

What Is Defensive Driving?

Defensive driving can be summarized as looking out for hazards, anticipating problems, and thinking ahead about how to deal with them. It involves using safe driving strategies to spot hazards and avoid situations that can lead to crashes. Simply put, you are on the defensive when you drive. You have to look out for other people, because they will not be looking out for you.

When driving in a neighborhood, the defensive driver watches for cars backing down driveways and children playing in or near the street. When stopped at a traffic signal, the defensive driver does not lower their eyes to adjust the radio or check their smartphone or their car’s touchscreen display. They are always scanning the intersection ahead and around them for hazards, pedestrians, and other drivers. Their eyes are watching the road in all directions, checking their mirrors, and staying alert.   

If this all sounds like constantly being on guard, it is. You cannot assume other people will obey the traffic laws and the rules of the road. In fact, according to the Missouri Driver Guide, you should “[e]xpect other drivers to make mistakes and think what you would do if a mistake does happen.” Many people on the roads will not be paying attention. Some will be running late to work or an appointment. They may be having a bad day. They may be angry or frustrated. They may be overwhelmed by screaming children in the back seat. Or they may simply be a new driver who lacks experience behind the wheel. A defensive driver expects other drivers to be distracted, in a hurry, or driving with their emotions (i.e. road rage). A defensive driver knows their best bet to avoid a serious collision is to anticipate problems and always drive as safely as possible.

How to Get Started

Read the Missouri Driver Guide. The Missouri Driver Guide is published by the Department of Revenue and can be found for free at https://dor.mo.gov/drivers/dlguide. You probably read it when you were getting ready to take your driver’s test to get your license. It is an invaluable resource for rules of the road and safe driving.

Read the Illinois GDL Parent-Teen Driving Guide. Similar to the Missouri Driver Guide, the Illinois Parent-Teen Driving Guide is part of Illinois’ graduated license program and has useful information for teens and beginning drivers, including a chapter on defensive driving in particular. It can be found, along with the Illinois Rules of the Road, at https://www.CyberDriveIllinois.com.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA has compiled fact sheets and other resources for teens and parents regarding safe driving habits. Link: https://www.nhtsa.gov/road-safety/teen-driving#resources

Find a defensive driving course for your teen to take. Consider taking it with them. A quick Google search can turn up online courses that are certified and approved in your state, or you can search for local companies that offer Teen and Adult Driver’s Ed classes.

Have frank conversations with your teens about distracted driving. Take opportunities to point out examples of defensive and safe driving to your teens as you are driving. Discuss what other drivers are doing and explain what you are doing and why. Talk about attention-grabbers. These are things like smartphones, Google maps, text messaging, and social media apps (Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok). Talk about vehicle-based distractions such as food and drink, radio/cd player, GPS, in-car displays that connect to your iPhone, etc.

Talk to your insurance agent. Most automobile insurance companies offer discounts for drivers who complete safe driving and defensive driving courses, and many offer discounts or incentives for having a good driving record. Be sure to check with your insurance agent to find out if your insurance company offers a rate discount or other reward for completing a defensive driving course. They may even be able to help you find reasonably priced courses to choose from.

Everyone Benefits When We Drive Safely

Ultimately, helping our teens become better drivers may mean that we become better drivers in the process. Everyone benefits when we all drive safely. As attorneys and paralegals, we never want to see another family grieve the death of a loved one from a fatal car crash that could have been avoided. Even insurance companies encourage safe driving because it saves them money when there are fewer injury claims to handle. If we can help guide our teens toward good defensive driving habits, we can help make the roads and highways safer places for them, and for the rest of us as well.

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