Even as parents, we might be tempted to drive differently when we have a friend in the car, so how much harder is it for our teenagers who have just started to drive and for whom their peer group is everything?
But peer pressure poses a very real threat. Young drivers are more likely to crash if they have their peers in the car with them.¹ In fact, US research has shown that the fatal crash risk for 16-19 year old drivers is more than five times higher with two or more passengers in the car than it is when driving alone.²
Not only do passengers potentially distract the driver by chatting or turning the music up but research shows that peer pressure can actually encourage bad driving and cause drivers to show off.³ Young drivers can drive badly not because they don’t know how to drive well, but because that’s how they think their friends expect them to drive.⁴ For example, peers might encourage each other to drink and drive, check texts, speed or otherwise act recklessly behind the wheel.
Unsurprisingly, there have been calls for restrictions on passengers for new drivers and, whilst the government has no current plans to introduce a graduated driver licensing programme, it is important for young drivers to be aware of the risks so they can make informed decisions.
The Safe Driving Agreement
As parents, we can also make a voluntary Safe Driving Agreement⁵ between us and our teenager. These are popular in other countries and set out certain conditions for the first year or so of driving. For example, the teenager can drive the family car (or their own, if helped in financing it) if they agree not to give lifts to friends for the first three months (even longer at night when the worst incidents are likely to happen). You can find out more about a Safe Driving Agreement at http://www.rospa.com/roadsafety/info/youngdrivers.pdf
Young people as passengers
It’s important to talk to our teenagers about the dangers of accepting lifts from their friends and help them to refuse a lift from a friend who drives recklessly or has been drinking or taking drugs. Tragically, more young women die as passengers than as drivers⁶, which is why campaigns such as ‘For my girlfriend’ have been set up to encourage young drivers not to drive too fast and to keep their passengers – whether it’s their best mate, girlfriend, boyfriend, sister, brother – safe.
The reason more girls die as passengers than as drivers is that they are more often travelling as the front seat passenger.⁷ When a driver loses control and is heading towards danger, for example, a tree or a brick wall, their instinctive reaction is to steer themselves away from the danger. Unfortunately, this means the front passenger seat often takes the impact of a collision, so it’s become known as the ‘Sacrificial Seat’. This is why it’s so important that we teach our teenagers that not only do they need to control their behaviour as a passenger but they must also speak up and challenge any inappropriate driving.
How we can help as parents
Perhaps, as parents, we need to consider offering a mum and dad taxi service a while longer. It might be inconvenient but letting our teenagers know we’ll always pick them up if they’re stuck means we’re better safe than sorry. We can agree that if they’re ever in a situation where they don’t feel safe – as a driver or a passenger – even if it’s very late at night, they can call and we’ll pick them up, or make sure they have emergency taxi money and taxi numbers.
Preparation and planning
Whether our teenagers are the drivers or the passengers it can help to be prepared. Talking to teenagers about different situations involving peer pressure and driving can help them rehearse and plan difficult scenarios in advance. And we can let teenagers know they can use us an excuse in order to save face. For example, saying “If my parents find out, I won’t be allowed to use the car,” might deter friends who’re keen on keeping their lift!
It’s worthwhile reminding teenagers that, as the driver, they’ll be the ones in control. They can make the decisions about where, when, how – and who – they’re going to drive safely.
 The situational risks of young drivers: the influence of passengers, time of day, and day of week on accident rates, Doherty, S.T, Audrey, J.C and MacGregor, C., 1998 ; see also Carrying Passengers as a risk factor for crashes fatal to 16- and 17-year-old drivers, Chen, L.H, Baker, S.P., et al, , Jama, 2000.
 Passenger distractions among adolescent drivers, University of California, 2008 see http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsr.2008.03.003