Parents often take the lead in teaching their teenage children to drive, even though their own memories of starting out behind the wheel may be hazy at best.
And since car crashes are the top cause of teen deaths in the United States. claiming more than 2,700 teen lives in 2010 and sending another 282,000 to the emergency room, it's a task that parents really need to get right.
"Parents aren't professional driving instructors – they're professional parents," says Jessica Mirman, a developmental psychologist from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "And though they've been driving for a while and may have a good grasp on what to teach, they may not necessarily know how to teach it."
A web-based driving program that puts Mom and Dad back in the learner's seat makes it more likely that their children will pass their driver's test, a study by Mirman finds.
The program, called TeenDrivingPlan, teaches parents how to better supervise driving lessons. It uses a series of short training videos to guide parents on teaching techniques such as turning and merging into traffic. It also provides a sort of cheat sheet that lets parents plan their driving sessions and then log and track their child's progress.
Teenagers whose parents used the training program over a 24-week period were 65 percent more likely to pass an on-road driving test than those whose parents did not take the program, according to a study published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
The researchers randomly placed 151 young drivers who had earned their learner's permit but had fewer than five hours of driving practice into two groups: one whose parents would use the program and a control group that did not.
Parents who used the TeenDrivingPlan learned to teach their teens how to navigate parking lots and heavy traffic as well as drive during clear skies and rainy weather conditions. According to the study, parents logged into the program a median of 11 times and watched about 132 minutes of training videos during the 24 weeks.
Following the study, the researchers set up driving tests. The driving instructors didn't know which students belonged to the TeenDrivingPlan group and which did not. After the test, 6 percent of the teens whose parents had taken the program failed the driving test, compared with 15 percent from the control group. The study and the design of the TeenDrivingPlan were funded by the State Farm insurance company.
Anne McCartt, a researcher with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va., who was not involved in the study, calls the results "encouraging," and says the program is a constructive way for teens to spend the period after they get their learner's permit but before getting their driver's license. She says that it reflects ongoing attempts to find ways to keep teen drivers safe. The next step would be to see if the program helps reduce crash risk.
Mirman says that she is looking at ways to make TeenDrivingPlan more effective so that more teens pass the driving test, which she says can help better prepare them for driving the roads alone.
"Inexperience is the major crash contributing factor for teens," she tells Shots. "TDP showed that when families used it, they could increase their teen's skills before getting their license."