Parents need to make themselves a part of their teens' driver education and model proper behavior to encourage safe driving habits.
To keep your kids as safe as possible behind the wheel, experts advise that you think back to other firsts of their childhood: Closely monitor them until they've demonstrated they can handle the road and don't let go of the back of the bike too soon, so to speak.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Part of the problem is teens' inexperience, combined with their natural tendency to live life on the edge. "Risk-taking is a normal part of being a teenager, and that can have pretty horrible consequences," says Chuck Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Too few parents know their state's driver-education laws well enough to enforce them at home; they're also not as active as they should be in teaching their kids how to drive, experts say.
"Parents are waiting for someone to tell them what they're supposed to know," says Pam Fischer, director of the N.J. Division of Highway Traffic Safety. "But as parents, it's our job to know."
Adding even one peer in a car where a teen is driving raises the risk of a crash by 50 percent, Fischer says. And talking on a cell phone when driving is "the equivalent of a 0.08 percent alcohol level," says Timothy Smith, a driving instructor and author of "Crashproof Your Kids: Make Your Teen a Safer, Smarter Driver."
So, before you hand over the keys, make sure your instructions are in sync with the law: Don't let your child use a cell phone, pick up friends when your state's rules prohibit it, or drive past the curfew.
State the Obvious
A ban on driving while intoxicated goes without saying - but you still need to say it to your kids.
It's imperative to be a good role model, Fischer says. "The bottom line is, the most dangerous time in a teen's life is that first couple of years of driving," she says. So when you're at the wheel, be aware of your own actions, and make sure that you're always demonstrating safe driving.
A good driver's education course at school, or from an outside vendor, can be helpful, but don't rely on it. Kids need at least 50 hours of driving with a parent, experts say, and that should include practice in dangerous conditions like rain, fog, or snow.
"Driving schools will give a good foundation, but there's no substitute for experience," Fischer says. "In that permit phase: practice, practice, practice."
Choosing a safe, steady car for your kids to drive is also critical. When teens finally get their licenses, they naturally want the fastest, fanciest model available to them, but it's folly to give in, experts say.
"We're talking about young people," says James Wasser, superintendent of regional high schools in Freehold, N.J., whose six schools and 12,000 students constitute the largest high-school district by population in the state. "They're going through a difficult time in their life, and automobiles aren't made like they were back in 1968. Some of these new cars are like rocket ships," he says - combining teenage angst and horsepower is "a recipe for disaster."
With its large population and old-fashioned country roads, Wasser's district has seen more than its share of tragic accidents, including one in January 2007, where three high school students and an adult driver were killed.
At the time of the accident, a 17-year old driver carrying two other students was going at least 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, police estimate, when he apparently lost control of his vehicle and veered into oncoming traffic, hitting a Dodge Caravan. The driver of the Caravan, and all three students in the speeding Cadillac CTS were killed.
Another teen who was speeding and who had passed the Cadillac moments before the crash was charged with reckless driving and for violating the terms of his provisional license. He was carrying three student passengers at the time.
"I never thought I would be attending wakes and funerals and services for young people killed in car crashes," Wasser says. "When you pass by a casket, and you're standing next to the grandfather of someone who died, that's not supposed to happen."
Wasser urges parents to buy their kids less powerful cars. "Why do you need to get them a souped-up sports car?" he says. "They don't have to have fast cars. We can't control it, but we ask [parents] to think about it."
MADD's Hurley, who has worked in traffic safety for more than 30 years, gave his own three children, now in their thirties, a "big and slow" full-size Buick station wagon to use. "The only downside was it could hold too many teenagers," he says. Although the law didn't limit additional passengers at the time, he placed restrictions on how many people could ride in the car, limiting it at first to just himself or his wife.
Though experts clearly place the onus on parents, public awareness of the issues is growing. In October, Congress made the third week of every October "Teen Driving Safety Week," and there are many resources that offer help.
For more insight on helping your kids stay safe behind the wheel, see the ForbesAutos.com slideshow with ten tips culled from experts.