Resource Guide to Help Teen Drivers Obtain a License and Stay Safe on the Road
For a teenager, getting a license is a monumental rite of passage, but for parents, thinking about their teen behind the wheel can be a monumental stress inducer. Getting a license means more freedom, but it also means teens need to learn the laws of the road and obtain proper car insurance.
Educating your teen on how to be a safe driver and understanding available discounts, teen programs and other safe driving resources can offset the costs of insuring a teenage driver and decrease your teen's chances of bad crashes and accidents.
This article will cover how teens can pass their driver’s test and be prepared to hit the road, and how parents can find affordable car insurance for new drivers and help their teens be safe behind the wheel.
How to Get Your License
Getting a license is the first step in this driving journey for your teen. Parents are encouraged to partner with their teens as they obtain a driver's license and learn to drive.
Every state has a graduated driver licensing (GDL) program. These programs provide a multi-step path that teens must follow to obtain their license. It usually involves obtaining and driving with a learner’s permit for a specific amount of time with restrictions on solo driving until the new driver is more experienced behind the wheel.
Here are the steps you and your teen can take to get a license.
Understand your state’s laws
Every state has its own laws and regulations for teen drivers and how they can obtain a license. From age requirements to a specific amount of experience behind the wheel, you want to be fully prepared for the steps your teen will need to take to obtain a license.
Participate in a driver’s education
Some states require a new driver to pass a driver’s education course before you can apply for a learner’s or instruction permit. Many high schools will offer driver’s education for teens. If your child’s high school does not have a program, your local DMV can direct you to an agency that offers your teen those courses.
Follow your states graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws
Each state has its own GDL laws your teen will need to follow to obtain a license. Understanding the specific milestones your teen needs to hit can help him or her get a driver’s license as quickly as possible.
Apply for a learner’s permit
If your teen meets all the state’s education and age requirements to apply for a learner’s permit, he or she can do so in person at a local DMV. Teens need to have an adult with them, proof of identity and pass a vision and written knowledge test, depending on the state. The price of a learner’s permit will also vary by state. It may cost $80–$200, on average.
Take the driver’s license test
Now, your teen will be eligible to apply for a driver’s license. Getting a license includes completing a vision, sign recognition, knowledge and driving skills tests. The driver must pass each test to get a license. If your child fails any part of the driver’s license tests, he or she can retake them after a certain amount of time has passed. A brand-new license may cost an average of $40–$100.
How to Find and Enroll in Driver’s Education
Whether your state requires a driver’s education course or not, it’s a good idea to enroll your teen as a new driver before he or she starts learning to drive. Driver’s education teaches more than the laws of the road and safe driving habits. Some courses may also teach mechanical education, such as how to change a tire, find important parts within the vehicle and check or change the oil filter.
Most high schools offer driver’s education as part of a teenager’s curriculum. In cities where driver’s education is not offered at the local high school, you can usually find independent driving schools that offer courses for teen drivers. If you’re unsure where to find courses, your local DMV can point you in the right direction. The cost of a driver’s education program will vary based on whether it’s an in-class instruction or a full-driving-school package. It may cost an average of $80 to $800 for courses and training.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have their laws and restrictions for teen drivers. As teens become more experienced, the restrictions on their driver's license are lifted. The interactive map below cites information from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
It also includes the three stages: a learner stage (a teen has a learner's permit and is learning to drive with supervision), an intermediate stage (a teen passed a driving test and has a provisional license — it may be a learner's permit with special conditions) and unrestricted stage (a teen obtained a driver's license and has full privileges as a new driver on the road).
You may also want to check with a representative at your local GDL program.
How to Be Safe on the Road and Prevent Crashes
When you look into what factors cause teens to rise to the top of the risky drivers’ list, you might find distracted driving to be the major reason. Whether it’s from a cellphone, friends in the car, eating or looking for something, removing your eyes from the road for even a second can result in crashes.
Distracted driving affects all drivers, no matter their age. The best way to prevent a distraction-related collision is to limit your distractions when behind the wheel.
"Texting and pushing buttons on your phone is like driving with a BAC of 0.19,” said Beth Ebel, M.D-M.P.H., a leading researcher on distracted driving who is also a physician at Seattle Children's Hospital and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “That represents a 23-fold increase in your crash risk. In addition to major crashes, texting is contributing to lots of little fender benders. Often, a phone is involved in these minor collisions, even though it's not getting reported to the police. It also puts people walking and biking at risk."
From cellphones to multitasking, the following distractions pose the greatest risk to your teen while on the road.
Driving With Teen Friends
Older passengers can help limit distractions by controlling the radio and the conversations in the vehicle, but teenage peers may not be equipped to help their friends on the road. Most states limit the number of teenage passengers a novice driver can transport during the learner and intermediate stages of the graduated driver's license program, designed to protect teen drivers. Even if your state doesn't have these restrictions, you may want to establish a rule to limit how many passengers your child can have in the vehicle, especially during the first six months of driving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the risk of an accident "increases with each additional teen passenger."
Engaging in Reckless Driving
Aggressive driving — including speeding, tailgating and road rage — is dangerous. In most states, if you get caught reckless driving, it can result in criminal charges. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), teens lack the maturity, judgment and experience to assess risky situations.
Every year, one-third of road accidents are a result of speeding. Speeding, tailgating and road rage can cause you to improperly operate your vehicle and take your eyes off the road, endangering yourself and other drivers. If you get caught speeding, tailgating or participating in road rage, it can result in a hefty ticket or even jail time.
These acts can increase the degree of crash severity and reduce the effectiveness of safety features in your vehicle. Teens can avoid this type of reckless driving by knowing and driving within the speed limit, keeping at least one car’s length between them and the vehicle in front of them and never engaging in road rage with another driver.
Not Getting Enough Sleep at Night
With busy school and social life schedules, teens may operate with minimal energy throughout their day. Drowsy driving includes falling asleep at the wheel, lack of alertness and attention, reduced reaction time, poor judgment and decision-making skills. All of these actions put the driver and others on the road at risk.
Drivers ages 17–23 who get less than six hours of sleep a night and drive on rural roads, or between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., are at the highest risk of crashes due to drowsy driving.
Combating drowsy driving includes getting enough sleep at home and never getting behind the wheel if your teen feels tired. If your teen is already driving and begins to feel drowsy, have your teen pull over to the side of the road and call you or someone to pick him or her up. You can bring another driver with you to drive your teen’s vehicle home or park the car somewhere safe.
Driving Under the Influence (DUI)
Driving under the influence includes driving while being impaired by alcohol or drugs. Being caught driving under the influence can lead to severe charges, such as jail time. While teen drivers are less likely to drink and drive than adults, teens with alcohol or drugs in their system are even more prone to crashes than older drivers who may have consumed similar substances. Teens should never get in the car with an impaired driver or operate a vehicle themselves if under the influence. Instead, consider calling parents for a ride, using a rideshare app such as Uber or Lyft or taking a taxi.
Avoiding Other Risky Behaviors on the Road
Parents can educate themselves on the following risks and work with their teens to help navigate and avoid these additional situations while driving.
Not Using Seat Belts
Teens might feel like a seat belt is uncomfortable or not the “cool” thing to do, but according to the CDC, wearing a seat belt can reduce the risk of death in an accident by 45%. Driving without a seat belt puts drivers and passengers at risk. If teens choose not to wear a seat belt, 90% of their teenage passengers who died in crashes are also not wearing a seat belt. The simple act of wearing a seat belt while a car is in operation can save lives.
Being Cautious While Driving at Night
Vision is limited when driving at night and in the dark. Since teens are inexperienced drivers, nighttime driving may be difficult to navigate, especially if lights are shining in their eyes, making animals and objects hard to see. Some states have restrictions on how late teens can drive, but even for states with no laws against nighttime driving, it should be limited by teens. For parents, setting a driving curfew for your teens can keep them off the road during unsafe hours.
Driving in the Winter
Winter driving results in more than 116,800 injured drivers every year. Conditions like snow, sleet and ice can quickly turn your teen’s commute into a slippery and dangerous drive. Learning to drive in winter conditions takes practice, but a general rule of thumb is to slow down when you or your teen experience winter weather. Consider pulling over if the winter conditions are too much to handle. And keep in mind the limitations of the car your teen is driving, such as understanding a two-wheel-drive vehicle may not make it through several inches of snow.
How to Make Sure You Are Prepared
The best way to limit your teen’s risks on the road is to be prepared for what may come his or her way. With helpful solutions like driving safe initiatives and defensive driving programs, you can practice safe driving techniques with your child as he or she becomes comfortable with being behind the wheel. Consider looking into the several programs and resources available below to help you.
- Driver’s Edge: This is a nonprofit and public charity that helps teach drivers under the age of 21 how to navigate emergency situations behind the wheel. The free program teaches situations like ABS braking exercises and skid control not covered in a typical driver’s education course.
- National Safe Driver Program: This program offers education courses for teens and young drivers. It also includes traffic safety and defensive driving courses and DMV practice tests in cities across the U.S.
- NSC Defensive Driving Courses: The National Safety Council (NSC) has online and in-person defensive driving courses for young drivers ages 15–24 and parents of young drivers.
- DriveItHome: This is a National Safety Council initiative for parents of new teen drivers. It offers free resources to help parents and their children stay safe behind the wheel.
- Keys2Drive: This AAA initiative provides various resources and guides for teens and parents to help navigate and educate new drivers on safe driving. Keys2Drive offers helpful resources for every stage of teen driving, from preparation to obtaining a license and solo driving.
- National Organization for Youth Safety (NOYS): NOYS encourages and empowers teens to engage in healthy lifestyle choices, make decisions to stay safe on the road and learn to prevent auto injuries.
8 Tips to Encourage Safe Driving for Your Teen
Now you have some ideas on how to prevent crashes and accidents and stay safe on the road. It doesn't stop there. You can establish additional rules and restrictions to help your teen stay safe and give you peace of mind as your child is beginning to drive. The following eight tips will further benefit you and your teen.
Talk with your teen
The easiest way to help teens understand the benefits of safe driving is to talk to them about driving rules and regulations. You can go through this series of “what-if” scenarios from Speed Patrol and talk through any scenarios that make your teen nervous. This conversation should also happen continually as your teen becomes more experienced as a driver.
"Young people with caring adults in their lives who take time to talk to them about issues like safe driving are more likely to make good choices,” says Stephen Gray Wallace, Director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE). “But these need to be ongoing conversations, not one-time conversations. You can't have one talk about driving safety and check it off your list. Things change, your kids change, they have different friends and different influences. The conversation should continue and reflect those changes."
Supervise your child on drives
Even if you’re getting your child professional driving lessons, it’s best to have supervised driving lessons where you’re in the car with your teen. Supervised lessons provide you a first-hand look at the skills your teen is gaining and where he or she can use more practice. If you’re physically with your teen during drives, you can help correct errors and practice safe driving skills. Driversed.com has some great tips for successful supervised driving. You can also use apps like the RoadReady app to track required supervised driving time with your teen.
Set rules with real consequences
Having rules and consequences help to keep your teen safe on the road. If teens know their phones will get taken away for three months if they get caught driving with too many friends in the car, they are more likely not to break that rule. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute has several house rules it suggests parents implement when your teen starts to drive. You’ll also find some inspiration from KidsHealth.org for rules you can set for your teen on the road beyond state driving laws.
Have a family contract
A family contract is a list of rules you can turn into law at your home. By sitting down with your teen and creating a family contract of discipline for when your teen is driving, you’ll know you and your teen are on the same page about your expectations and the consequences of poor driving etiquette and actions. ParentandTeen.com talks about how to prepare and execute a family contract with your teen. You can also model your agreement using this sample contract from the CDC.
"Research shows that the risk of a crash is lower if your kids think they are driving your car, as opposed to their car," says Ebel. "The reality is, most likely, you bought the car. They didn't buy the car. Who's paying insurance? You are." Even if you bought the car for your child, she suggests you may want to emphasize that ultimately, you own it, so you have the right to establish a contract.
Model the kind of driving you want to see
Teens are always watching. As the parent, you’re the role model and instilling good driving habits in your teen starts with you. A fun way to interact with your child could be to take the distracted driving challenge from TeenDrive365 and see if you or your teen are paying better attention on the road.
"Practice what you preach,” said Wallace. "Parents are the biggest influence on their child's driving behaviors. If parents are modeling good behavior, their child will more likely engage in good behaviors because they mimic those behaviors. The same is true of bad behaviors — if you are texting, talking on the phone or driving aggressively, your teen is more likely to do the same."
Ebel agrees. It’s important to be a role model for safe driving practices. "I talk to middle school kids, and they often tell me their parents text while driving,” she said. “What you say is less important than what you do. This is a golden opportunity for us as parents to make a change in our own behavior and model it for our kids."
Lay down the state law
Most states have implemented driving laws specifically for teens. It’s important teens understand the state’s laws before they get caught driving illegally before even having a license. Most states have graduated licensing laws, including curfews on the time of day teens can drive, how many peers can be in their vehicle and how much experience they must have before these laws no longer apply. If you feel like these restrictions aren’t enough for your teen, you can extend them for more months or expand upon them.
Consider a professional driving school
A professional driving school is different from driver’s ed for teens. If you have a busy schedule or don’t feel like you’ll be an ample teacher for your teen, a professional driving school can help balance the responsibility you have on yourself. Driving school teachers know local and national driving laws. The easiest way to find schools near you is a quick internet search.
Don’t forget about maintenance
Not only do teens need to learn how to drive, but they also need to learn how to take care of their vehicle. A large part of safe driving is making sure the vehicle stays properly maintained with oil changes, clean filters, good brakes and tires and more. Showing your teen how to do routine maintenance checks can help your teen take more responsibility for having a car and save you in costly repairs down the road.
Finding the Best and Safest Cars for Teens
As adults who have been driving for many years, you can have a significant impact encouraging your teen to be a safe driver. From being a good role model to picking out a safe car for teens, your role can help develop good driving habits.
You can begin by choosing a vehicle with top safety features. Not all vehicles are created equal, so doing your research is important as a teenage driver is exploring the road for the first time and encountering other drivers.
Modern safety features make it easier than ever to find a safe car for teens. Since teen drivers have a higher chance of being involved in crashes and accidents, it may be best to look for a vehicle that includes safety features that help minimize distracted driving and other unsafe driving habits.
For example, Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) warns the driver and engages the vehicle's brakes when the vehicle gets too close to the car in front of it. Bluetooth features can help your teen stay hands-free, and seat belt buckle alarms can help remind your teen to buckle up. Some additional valuable safety features for teens include:
- Adaptive cruise control (ACC)
- Dynamic brake support
- Adaptive headlights
- Forward collision warning
- Blindspot detection
- Back-up cameras
- Lane-keeping and lane-changing system
- Tire pressure monitor
- Facial recognition software
Car Specifications to Keep in Mind
Larger vehicles have proven to be a safer driving option than small vehicles for teens because they have better collision protection. However, too big of a vehicle can be difficult for your teen to learn how to operate. It’s also important to keep the engine in mind as teens don’t need a super powerful engine. A general 4-cylinder engine is sufficient.
Good Make and Models for Teens
When picking out the top-recommended car models for teens, the IIHS looks at reliability and safety ratings. All vehicle choices include standard electronic stability control and weigh more than 2,750 pounds. The following are its top three picks per vehicle size for teens.
Mazda 3 sedan and hatchback
Honda Civic sedan
Toyota Corolla sedan
2012 or newer
Insuring Your Teen's Car or Motorcycle
By law, all drivers need car insurance. However, as first-time drivers, teens can be insured during different stages of learning to drive. Some states require teens to have insurance while they have their learner’s permit, and some will allow them to wait until they get their driver’s license. Legally, no person can enter into a contract before 18, which means the parent or guardian must purchase a teen driver’s insurance. However, emancipated minors are legally able to buy, register and insure a vehicle. While some motorcycle insurance providers will offer insurance to 16-year olds, many won't, and standalone policies can still be expensive for riders as old as 21. While it's legal for all 18-year-olds to purchase auto insurance and motorcycle insurance, rates are relatively high at this age.
Joining Parents’ Coverage or Have Separate Plans
When your teens begin to drive, you’ll have the option of adding them to your auto policy or getting them their own policy as a new driver. It’s best and usually cheapest to add your teen driver to your policy. However, with that being said, it's still smart to compare auto insurance quotes for both as providers look into different factors for each driver. You may still see a costly addition. Seeing as auto policies vary significantly, it’s tough to put an exact price on how much a teenager will cost to insure. You may pay an additional $1,000–$2,500, on average, a year for car insurance for teens. Getting a teen their own policy can increase costs up to several thousand dollars.
Factors That May Increase Your Insurance
While insuring a teen is already more costly than an experienced driver, there are additional factors that may increase your insurance premiums. These include, but are not limited to, age, car type, driving history and records, location and number of miles driven a year. Of course, you can’t control all of these factors, but choosing an affordable vehicle for your teen and teaching safe driving habits can save you hundreds of dollars.
What Can You Do to Discount Your Insurance?
There are ways to find the best car insurance for your teen, which also keeps your premiums low and protects your young driver on the road. Responsibility is the key to reducing insurance rates. The following things can save you money on auto insurance for teenagers.
- Maintaining good grades: Many insurance companies will give good student discounts to drivers who maintain at least a B average.
- Clean driving record: Work with your teen to promote safe driving. The fewer tickets, accidents and incidents on a teen’s driving record, the less concerned an insurance company will be to insure them.
- Take a driver’s education course: There are various approved driver’s ed courses that help teach new drivers the laws of the road. Enrolling in a course shows that the teen is taking steps towards being a safe driver.
- Ask about multi-car discounts: If your teen is driving his or her own car, you can ask your insurance agency about multi-car discounts when you add another vehicle to your policy.
- Consider making your teen get a job: You can encourage your teen to get a job to help pay for his or her portion of the insurance. It can help your teen establish a better understanding of how car insurance works and develop good habits as both an employee and a new driver.
Expert Thoughts on Safe Driving
MoneyGeek reached out to several experts who can weigh in on safe driving techniques. They also provide a few helpful tips on how parents can help their teens be better drivers.
- What happens when kids see their parents texting and talking on phones while driving?
- How else can we help our children be safe drivers?
- What do you think about the use of apps to help stay safe on the road?
- If a teen doesn’t have a parent to look to for safe driving advocacy or assistance, where can they go?
- What is the most common thing you believe parents overlook when teaching their kids to drive?
Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine
Senior Director of External Engagement at Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA)
Subject Matter Expert, Driver Safety Education and Training
Founder of Love From Afar-The Christopher Allen Williams Foundation and P.A.D.D. (Parents Against Distracted Driving)
Additional Resources for Parents and Teen Drivers
A variety of helpful resources are available for parents and teens. Whether you’re looking for tips, a community of other parents with teen drivers, programs or simple resources for your teen, you’ll find them in the list of resources below.
- CDC Teen Drivers: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer parents and teens information and guidance about safe driving.
- Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE): This organization researches youth development and decision-making and provides resources for parents.
- Children Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute's Teen Driver Source: Teen Driver Source provides practice guides, crash facts, driving law information and other resources for teen drivers.
- National Teen Driver Safety Week: NHTSA provides fact sheets, posters, graphics and other tools you can use to educate teens about driver safety.
- NHTSA Parents and Caregivers: The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration offers parents information about common safety problems and resources.
- NHTSA Teen Driving: This page is full of resources for parents and teens to become more informed, safer drivers.
- Safe Used Vehicles for Teens: The International Institute of Highway Safety provides a list of the safest cars for teens.
- Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD): Formerly Students Against Drunk Driving, SADD is the leading national organization committed to saving lives by empowering teens to stand up against destructive decisions.
About the Author
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Teen Drivers." Accessed January 15, 2021.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Teen Drivers: Get the Facts." Accessed January 15, 2021.
- Healthy Children. "Driving Safety." Accessed January 15, 2021.
- I Drive Safely. "Traffic School, Defensive Driving & Drivers Ed." Accessed January 11, 2021.
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). "Graduated licensing laws by state - Table." Accessed January 15, 2021.
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). "Safe used vehicles for teens." Accessed January 15, 2021.
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). "Teenagers." Accessed January 15, 2021.
- National Highway of Traffic Safety Administration. "Parents: Talk to Your Teen Driver About Safe Driving." Accessed January 10, 2021.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Speeding." Accessed January 15, 2021.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Teen Driving." Accessed January 15, 2021.
- Parent and Teen. "Create a Teen Behavior Contract." Accessed January 15, 2021.
- TeenDrive365. "Your teens' safety comes first." Accessed January 11, 2021.
- Traffic Safety Marketing. "Teens And Seat Belt Use." Accessed January 15, 2021.
- U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. "Snow and Ice." Accessed January 15, 2021.