Holy Hell, My Kid's at the Wheel

Jennifer Ryan is an expert in teen driver safety — and the mother of a newly minted driver. She shares her advice on what to teach your child and how to keep yourself sane in the process.

By Meredith Heagney
teen driver

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Jennifer Ryan, 46, of Bethesda, Maryland, might be even more anxious about teaching her child to drive than the average mom because she knows too much. Ryan is in charge of the teen driver safety initiative at AAA’s national office in Washington, where she is director of state relations. 

It’s part of her job to remind parents of truly terrifying statistics, such as how motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 killer of teens

But she also wants the experience to be empowering and enjoyable for her 16-year-old daughter, Natalie, who has her learner’s permit. And soon enough, Ryan will have to do it all over again with their second daughter, Lucy, who is 14.

We asked Ryan about teaching a teen to drive while maintaining your sanity. 

The Plum: Why are teenagers a vulnerable driver group? 

RYAN: They don’t have experience behind the wheel and they tend to engage in risky behaviors. They’ll speed, they don’t always wear their seat belts and they tend to be adversely affected when another teen gets in the car:

Research has shown that for every teen passenger, your crash risk increases. They tend to be a little bit overconfident. It’s definitely a very risky time.

I would tell other moms, first of all, that they need to breathe. They need to remain calm and they need to start slowly.

Jennifer Ryan of AAA 

The Plum: What is your advice for moms trying to deal with the anxiety of teaching a child to drive?

RYAN: It’s very normal to feel out of control. You know your child doesn’t have a lot of experience… I can literally feel the gray hairs coming in as we drive. 

I would tell other moms, first of all, that they need to breathe. They need to remain calm and they need to start slowly. Pick a good time with good conditions and have a plan: Today we’re going to go around the parking lot and that’s it. And that’s OK; that’s day one. Progress from there as your teen is ready.

The Plum: What risks should parents be more aware of?

RYAN: I think a lot of parents don’t understand the risk that passengers bring into the vehicle. 

We had a situation: It was a high school football game, and my daughter and a group of her friends wanted to go. One of the girls had just entered the part of the licensing process where she’s allowed to drive friends. I asked the mom how long she has been allowed to drive friends, and she said, “Oh, it’s been a couple of weeks. But I’m going to let her take the minivan tonight so she can take all six kids to the football game.” 

I was not comfortable with this child driving this car full of teens, so I picked up my kid and we met them there. We did the same thing on the way home.

The Plum: Was that interaction awkward with the other parent or embarrassing for your daughter?

RYAN: My daughter said to me, “I assume you’re not going to let me go with my friends, right?”

And I said, “No, but I will miss your sister’s soccer game and stay home so that I can be there to drive you.”

Sometimes you want to be your kids’ friend, but this is a time when you need to be their parent. 

The Plum: Can you go too far and be too overprotective?

RYAN: There’s a balance that needs to be struck.

You want your child to get practice in all kinds of weather and all kinds of driving conditions, on many different types of roadways, because that’s what it’s all about. They’re going to be in situations, and they need to be able to rely on some experience to be able to handle them properly.

The Plum: Do you recommend parents seek out more challenging situations?

RYAN: Oh, absolutely. Not right when they’re beginning to drive, but when they’re comfortable on the roadways, yes. We want the child to encounter the situations when the parent is there to coach them. I had my daughter drive in the rain the other day. She’s never used the windshield wipers. She didn’t even know how to turn them on. 

The Plum: How do you get a teen to not touch her cellphone while driving?

RYAN: We encourage teens to use the “do not disturb” feature on their cellphones because using them is such a temptation.

When we’re driving, I take my daughter’s phone, and it’s off and it doesn’t make noise. I think when she is driving on her own, we’ll use “do not disturb.”

The Plum: Couldn’t the teenager just turn the feature off and use the phone? How do you establish trust? 

RYAN: We encourage parents to work with their teen on a parent-teen driving agreement. It’s a contract that you and your teen come up with together.

You say, “If we find out that you are engaging in these things, then here are your consequences.” 

It’s really important that parents set the rules early; it’s not something that’s easily brought in after the kid has been driving for a while.

The Plum: When Natalie drives on her own, what will be your initial rules, other than no cellphone use?

RYAN: We know from research that teen crashes start to go up starting at 9 p.m. We will definitely have limits about driving at night and driving with passengers. She can’t drive after midnight by (Maryland) state law, but we will curb that to either 9 or 10 p.m. She must always wear her seat belt and ensure her passengers, if there are any, do as well. 

I went to a parent session for people learning to teach their teen to drive, and they talked about picking five locations that they’re allowed to go to by themselves first: You can drive to the grocery store, you can drive to your friend’s house, you can drive to school… whatever your five might be. And just stick with those for a while. Give them a little bit of independence but restrict it.

The Plum: How should parents think about their own driving?

RYAN: Even if your kids aren’t ready to drive yet, it’s not too soon to think about your behavior behind the wheel and to acknowledge that your teen or child is already picking up your habits.

The Plum: What if you’ve been a bad role model on occasion? 

RYAN: It’s never too late to start practicing good driving habits and to talk about those things and say, “You might have seen me do this, and while it wasn’t the safest driving behavior, I have 30 years of driving experience.” 

Tell them that you’re going to start from here on out, and you’re going to operate the vehicle as you would want them to so they can see good habits.

 

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