Can I Borrow the Car? Asking for the Keys is a Good Thing

Giving teens unlimited access to a vehicle may be convenient, but it’s risky. Requiring teens to ask for the keys gives parents a chance to ask three critical questions.

Are you buying Zach a car?  If I had a dollar for every time I’m asked that question, I’d have a decent down payment on a new set of wheels.  But a new or used car, for that matter, isn’t in my soon to be licensed teenage son’s future. 

Maybe I’m a bit old-school, but I don’t see the need.  We’ve got two cars and a truck sitting in our driveway, I work out of the house and my son gets a ride to school every day via that big (and safe) yellow bus that stops just a short distance from our front door.  If he needs to drive once licensed, he’ll have to do what both my husband and I did when we were his age, ask if he can use a car. 

Having to ask is a good thing.  According to the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), the crash risk for teens who share access to a vehicle is half that of  teens who have full, unrestricted access.  Teens who share a vehicle are also 85% less likely to speed and 5% less likely to use a cell phone while driving.  And even if your teen has his own car, making him ask for the keys, notes researchers, will reduce his crash risk as well.  Why? 

The simple act of asking for the keys gives parents the opportunity to respond with three important questions:  where are you going, who are you going with and when will you be home?  Sound familiar?  I can’t recall a single time in my teen driving years when one of my parents didn’t pepper me with these and other questions.  (My mom still asks that I let her know I arrived home safely after every visit.)  But this exchange is important -- it reinforces that while a teen no longer has to rely on a parent or other licensed adult to drive him, mom and dad still exercise authority over that freedom.  

Establishing the purpose for the drive, along with who will be joining your teen are critical.  Teens who drive simply to drive, are more likely to engage in risky behaviors.  And when teens are accompanied by their peers, they’re more likely to crash.  In fact, when just one friend is in the car, a teen’s crash risk doubles.  While teens holding a probationary license under New Jersey’s Graduated Driver
(GDL) program are allowed to transport one passenger, many public health and safety organizations recommend no passengers during the first few  months of independent driving, the most dangerous time for new licensees.  

Driving at night also poses a crash risk for teens (40% of fatal crashes occur after 9 p.m.), so asking when they plan to return home provides parents the opportunity to reinforce a previously agreed upon curfew (remember the 11 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew under NJ’s GDL is a minimum standard).  Plus, requesting that a teen check-in once he’s arrived at his destination and provide updates if that destination changes is important, too. 

Tim Hollister, a Connecticut attorney and teen safe driving advocate who lost his 17-year-old son Reid in a single vehicle crash in 2006, uses the analogy of filing a flight plan when it comes to teens and driving. The teen is the pilot and the parent the air traffic controller, which means that whenever the teen wants to drive, he must file a flight plan and get permission from the tower -- mom or dad -- before
taking off. 

What should be included in the flight plan?  Tim suggests the destination, the route, the arrival and departure time, an equipment check, a communications plan (when and how will the teen report in), a passenger manifest, and a contingency plan (what’s the alternate route if the intended one is blocked).  The final check before okaying the plan (or in this case handing over the keys) should be an assessment of whether the pilot or teen is well-rested, alert and ready to take on the responsibility of safely operating the vehicle.

Whether you play three questions with your teen or use the flight plan analogy, this dialogue between parent and teen, according to CHOP, creates and re- etablishes a verbal contract.  In this contract, the teen is agreeing to follow the rules set by a parent.  Each time a teen asks for the keys, he reinforces the verbal contract demonstrating his knowledge and agreement to comply. 

So if Zach wants to use a car, he’ll have to ask just let I did when I was a teen.  Were there days when a car wasn’t available?  Yet bet, I was one of three teenagers in a household with three cars and five drivers.  What did I do when a car wasn’t available?  I walked.  Walking not only helped me stay fit, but gave me a better appreciation for what it means to share the road with pedestrians when I was behind the wheel. 

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cv August 06, 2012 at 01:43 PM
Great article and so true.
Pam Fischer August 07, 2012 at 10:41 PM
clyde donovan August 08, 2012 at 09:20 PM
Holy crap, could you people stop beating up on teenage drivers?
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