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Teen driver study: Parents miss opportunities to help develop understanding

Parents are highly engaged supervisors of young beginning drivers, but they tend to focus on basics. Turning, stopping, and other vehicle handling skills are often emphasized, rather than higher-order cognitive abilities that are central to safe driving, according to a study recently published by researchers at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center’s (HSRC) Center for the Study of Young Drivers.

“Parents tend to focus more on how to operate the vehicle, rather than more complex issues like how to anticipate when another driver might do something dangerous,” said Arthur Goodwin, senior research associate at HSRC’s Center for the Study of Young Drivers. “To help a teen develop into a safer driver, parents should also strive to share the wisdom, awareness and understanding they’ve developed over many years of driving. These are the sorts of things that, far more than vehicle handling skills, prevent crashes.”

Most U.S. states require adult supervision for 6-12 months before teens can begin driving independently. This period allows young drivers to safely gain driving experience with support from an experienced adult. However, until recently, what parents do during the mandatory period of supervised driving, and the type of conversations that takes place during this time, was unknown.

Using in-vehicle audio and video recorders to study 50 families in North Carolina during the first four months of the supervised driving period, researchers found that conversations were often related to driving. This suggests parents were highly engaged in supervising their teens. However, higher-order instruction remained low during the entire four-month period, even as basic instruction about vehicle handling operation decreased over time. These findings suggest parents are not taking full advantage of the opportunity provided by the lengthy periods of supervised driving to help their children develop an understanding of important aspects of driving.

“Ideally, as teens gradually become more comfortable with handling the vehicle, instruction would focus on helping the teen learn to see the driving world the way an experienced driver does,” said Goodwin. “For example, rather than simply telling their teen to brake sooner, parents can explain how they can look several cars ahead for brake lights to anticipate when traffic may be slowing.”


A second study used the same in-vehicle recording technique to measure distraction among teens who had progressed to driving without adult supervision. Findings showed that adolescent drivers are sometimes sidetracked by technology while they’re driving, but loud conversations and horseplay between passengers appear more likely to result in a dangerous incident.  For more information, see the study in the May 2014 supplement to the Journal of Adolescent Health, or read the news release and news articles about the findings.

The most common types of comments by parents were:

  • Instruction about vehicle handling or operation: 53 percent
  • Pointing out when it was clear to enter traffic: 23 percent
  • Negative comments about the teen’s driving: 22 percent
  • Helping the driver navigate: 18 percent

The study also provides a more general glimpse into parent-teen relationships during the early months of supervised driving. For most families, the atmosphere in the vehicle was quite positive, as indicated by frequent smiles and laughter. By contrast, raised voices and yelling were rare.
Unlike previous studies that have relied on young drivers or parents to report behaviors, this study is the first to use in-vehicle technology that enables researchers to directly observe parents and teens during supervised driving. Over the course of the study, more than 2,000 brief driving episodes were recorded.

The study, “Parent comments and instruction during the first four months of supervised driving: An opportunity missed?” will appear in the August issue of Accident Analysis and Prevention. Financial support for this research was provided by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can read the complete announcement in the “News Room” section of the HSRC website.

The University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center
730 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Suite 300  |  Campus Box 3430  |  Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3430
Phone: 919.962.2203  |  Fax: 919.962.8710