Your son has just turned 16 and you are already dreaming of the free time you will have when he starts driving himself around. Your dreams quickly turn to nightmares when the local news reports yet another fatal crash involving a teenage driver. Maybe life as a chauffeur isn't really that bad?

There is reason to worry since car wrecks are the leading cause of death among teenagers, killing nearly 3,000 each year. However, that number has actually declined 68 percent since 1975, thanks largely to improved and prolonged driver education, graduated driving laws (GDLs) and proactive parents who work to minimize teen risk. "Driving doesn't have to be a big black hole that you throw your teenager into," says Tom Pecoraro, founder and president of I Drive Smart, a local driver education program, and a father of five. "Parents often cross their fingers and hope for the best, but there are things they can do to manage the risk."

Give it lots of time. Pecoraro first advises parents to elongate the process. "Start formal driver education at age 15 when you're driving them around a lot and can strike up conversations about laws and your own driving experiences," he says. The formal in-class training prepares them for their learner's permit, which allows them to do their on-road, supervised training. "Parents can stretch out the supervised in-car sessions with the driving instructor throughout the learner's permit period and practice with the student as often as possible in between, rather than trying to squeeze it all in over the summer when the teen has some free time," Pecoraro suggests.

Because the official license test only measures minimum proficiency, Pecoraro advises parents to delay letting teens drive on their own until they're 17 years old. "This makes it a full two years of training until they're on their own," he says. This advice is based on statistics showing that the first six months after earning a license is the riskiest period for teen drivers.

Minimize all distractions. While smartphone use by drivers gets a great deal of media and government attention, Pecoraro warns that all distractions are dangerous. "Driving is 90 percent visual, 5 percent touch and 5 percent hearing, so every time you take your eyes off the road to adjust the music or pick up your coffee, you're reducing your ability to drive by 90 percent," he says. Eating, drinking, grooming, changing music, looking at the GPS, talking with passengers and using a smartphone are common accident-causing distractions. Today's cars have a lot more to look at inside, which in turn cause drivers to take their eyes off the road.

Obey passenger laws. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for 16- and 17-year-old drivers just one passenger increases crash risk by about 50 percent. Three or more passengers increases the risk nearly four times over driving alone. GDLs instituted in local jurisdictions were designed to give teenagers more driving experience before chauffeuring their friends. Unfortunately, teens and parents often view these laws as inconvenient and not worth obeying. "If parents sign on the dotted line for their teen to get a license, they are responsible for making sure the teen follows the law, and are liable if they knowingly allow them to violate it," Pecoraro warns. As a father, he knows all too well what a headache this can be, but also how important it is to prevent a teen from becoming another statistic.

Parents of passengers need to pay attention, too. "As a parent you have to do your due diligence on who your child is driving with and who your child is driving," Pecoraro says. Nearly half of the teenagers killed in car wrecks are passengers, so it is important for parents to teach and model responsible passenger behavior.

Come to an agreement. Written agreements regarding important topics - such as who pays for gas, insurance, car repairs or tickets and what the consequences will be for risky behaviors, such as not wearing a seat belt, speeding or driving an unauthorized passenger - can minimize surprises and stress. Mistakes will happen, but following through on agreements made in advance helps teens learn from and take responsibility for their mistakes.

Enjoy the process. Teaching your teen to drive does not have to be another nerve-wracking item on the parenting "to do" list. An upside is the opportunity for time alone with your teen at a stage when they typically want nothing to do with parents. "We would drive away from the city, explore less crowded areas and have meaningful interactions," a Silver Spring mom says.

Finally, Pecoraro cautions parents to think of driving not just as a rite of passage but as a life skill. "Think of how much time and money parents spend on preparing their teens to take the SAT. We need to spend at least that much time and money on driver education."

Minimizing these six causative factors can reduce the chance of injury or death due to car wrecks involving teen drivers:

  • Seat belt use - Only 40 percent of new drivers wear seat belts.
  • Time of day - Risk increases after 9 p.m., when vision is reduced and lower traffic density encourages higher speed.

  • Passengers - Accident risk increases per passenger.
  • Alcohol - Teen drivers are less likely than adults to drink and drive, but crash risk is higher when they do.
  • Speed - The higher the speed the more likely it is that an accident will occur.
  • Inexperience - Per mile driven, drivers age 16 to 19 are three times more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash.

Source: I Drive Smart

Robbye Fox is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program, leader of PEP's "Planning for Safe Teen Driving" workshop, and the primary driving educator for three young adults who safely navigated the teen driving years.