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Parents may not realize it, but they’ve actually been teaching their kids how to drive for well over a decade now. Your kids have been studiously studying your behavior behind the wheel since they first learned how to walk and talk. If you regularly swerve in and out of traffic while driving 20 m.p.h. over the speed limit, chances are your son or daughter is going to pick up the same habits.

Parent driving habits and teen behavior

Several studies show parents often take a “do as I say, not as I do” approach, which doesn’t work when it comes to driving. Teen driving safety advocate Jennifer Smith points out that “the teens today that are doing this (using cell phones or doing other reckless things while driving) are the ones who watch their parents do it.” (Copeland, 5-14-2012) And there’s no shortage of parents modeling bad behaviors. In an AT&T survey of 1,200 teens ages 15 to 19, 77% said that adults tell kids not to text or email while driving, yet 41% reported seeing a parent text while driving. (ibid) A different survey found that 65% of parents use their cell phones while driving. (Mahoney, 2009) And almost all of us are guilty of eating and drinking behind the wheel. What type of message does this send your kids about the dangers of these activities?

While you can’t go back and erase what kids have seen in the past, you can fix these things going forward. Even if you have an assortment of bad habits, making a conscientious effort to clean them up around your youngster will help.

  1. If you still engage in these habits, it’s time to stop.

Ideally, parents should start cleaning up their act about two years before their teen starts driving, or at around age 14. They shouldn’t do these things at all when kids are in the car. To put things in perspective, texting while driving makes you thousands of times more dangerous to your children than any sex offenders living in your community.

  1. Fess up about your bad habits.

Let your teen know that you’re aware you shouldn’t be doing these things, and that you’re going to start working hard at stopping. Kids can tolerate failures and imperfection in their parents, just not hypocrisy. So long as you convey the message that these things are important, they’ll forgive the occasional transgression if you’re honest and sincere about changing. If kids see you put forth the effort to be safe, they will too.

  1. Make strides towards safety together.

Learn about why you shouldn’t talk on the phone or text while driving by reading some of the research together. Look up You Tube videos of people who have walked into mall fountains or off of piers because they were texting. Agree to give each other gentle reminders when you see the other breaking the rules.

“The whole driving aspect starts from the moment we bring our kids home from the hospital. Our kids are learning from us day one. We’ve got to think about what we’re doing.”  – Pam Fischer, director of the New Jersey Division of Traffic Safety

Start modeling safe driving when the kids are young

Don’t wait until the teenage years to start teaching your kids about safe driving. Parents waste away thousands of driving lessons when their children are younger. Anytime the kids are in the car with you they can be learning, even when they’re not driving. Simply talk about safe driving techniques while you drive. Not only does this help focus your own mind on safety, but it builds a repertoire of safe habits in your child’s brain that they’ll carry with them into their own driving.

Even with kids as young as four- or five-years-old, this can start building skills for the future. “Here’s a stop sign, come to a complete stop, look left, look right, then pull out cautiously.” This type of talking can build up neural connections in the brain that leads them to perform safe driving actions automatically…much like listening to a song over and over again will wedge the lyrics into your mind, so that you start humming it automatically when something reminds you of it. If you develop the same type of neural pathways for common driving actions (“Both hands on the wheel, eyes on the road”) it can encourage safe driving habits in the subconscious that will serve your child well. They’ll be driving down the road and will get a mental reminder out of nowhere that will keep them focused, the product of your talking about it in your own driving all these years. It’s your way to establish that nagging voice in their heads for safety even when you’re not in the car.

With adolescents, it’s a little late for this type of cutesy word plays, (it’s perfect for their younger siblings!), but once your youngster is approaching driving age, merely talking about driving safety in the car helps a great deal. Talk about it when you see someone speeding or running a red light. Talk about how you have to keep an eye on other drivers, who may or may not be focused on the road. Talk about the proper way to merge onto the Interstate. Talk about times past when you’ve almost gotten into an accident, or when someone else hit you. Talk, talk, talk, about anything you can regarding driving safety. The more you do it, the more these things sink in and become second nature.

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