Assessing Your Teen’s Readiness to Drive

August 6, 2013

I recently heard Pam Fisher from the NJ Teen Safe Driving Coalition on Radio Times discuss, among other things,texting and driving among teens, the importance of practice, and following Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) to enhance teen driving safety.(Pam's discussion starts around the 35-minute mark.) This made me think about other conversations I've had regarding readiness to drive among teens in general. Many teens and their families view getting a license as an exciting milestone in their transition to adulthood. But it can be easy to forget that teens who appear physically ready to drive may not be mentally ready to get behind the wheel.

In Pennsylvania, physicians have to discuss driving with their teen patients because all teens that apply for a driver permit in our state must see a physician to certify that they do not have a condition that seriously impairs their ability to drive. But I also recommend that all pediatricians incorporate a “readiness to drive” assessment for their teen patients that want to drive, similar to the way we complete sports participation physicals to ensure the safety of teens that engage in team sports.

CIRP research showed that parents generally do not recognize the complex skills and decision-making required for safe driving. Pediatricians can help parents by breaking down the task of driving, using Russell Barkley’s driving paradigm (which I’ve described in a previous blog post):

  • Basic operational skills - ability to use the vehicle, such as turning off/on the ignition, braking, or turning smoothly
  • Tactical skills - ability to manipulate the vehicle among other drivers, such as passing a car
  • Strategic skills/judgment - ability to think critically about making a trip and using the car to accomplish that task, such as making decisions about whether one is too sleepy to drive  

By doing this, pediatricians can help parents see the developmental and behavioral skills required to drive safely, and in turn, help guide decisions about whether their teens are ready to drive.

We’ve created some questions that can help to guide a discussion between parents and pediatricians regarding driving readiness:

Some Questions to Consider for Assessing Driving Readiness

(originally printed in Children’s Doctor, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Winter 2012)

1.      Do you feel your teen consistently demonstrates good judgment and maturity at school, around peers, at home and is receptive to constructive criticism and instruction? Is she ready to accept the responsibility for her own safety and those around her?

2.      Is your teen demonstrating knowledge of the rules of the road and other proficiencies based on lessons learned in driver education classes? (Parents can assess by asking the teens to comment on their driving.)  If not, is your teen in need of specialized instruction or a driving assessment?

3.      Is your teen agreeable to practicing driving (for at least 65 hours required in Pennsylvania) with a skilled adult prior to driving independently; is there an adult who is willing/able to serve in this important role?

4.      Are there any medical or physical issues (e.g. untreated seizures, significant uncorrected visual impairment, uncontrolled diabetes, concussion) that may prevent them from driving safely?

5.      Are there any behavioral or neuropsychiatric issues (e.g. drug dependence, depression, ADHD, intellectual disability) that may prevent them from driving safely?

6.      Are there medical interventions that may be needed to ensure safe driving behaviors, such as stimulant medication for treatment of ADHD symptoms?

Of course, even after a teen receives a driver’s license, parents need to continue to assess their teen’s driving behavior. For more information about available resources to support families during the learning-to-drive process, please visit teendriversource.org.