When is a Teen Ready to Drive?

How do you know if your teen is ready to drive? You’d like to trust the minimum driving age. But it varies so widely from state to state, anywhere from 16-18 years of age. And as any parent can tell you, a 16-year-old is nothing like an 18-year-old in terms of maturity. A better guide to a teen’s readiness to drive is how they behave: how well are they able to control impulsive behavior?

Becca Smith, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at Basepoint Academy, a teen mental health center in Dallas, Texas says it’s safe for parents to trust the minimum driving age. But, say Smith, that’s only once the teen has studied up on the rules of the road and understands how to operate a vehicle safely. “Parents,” says Smith, “should also ensure that their teens have gone through defensive driving courses or classes on proper car care.”

Slow Learners

Marta De la Cruz, a clinical psychologist at The Balance, a rehabilitation center and mental health clinic, somewhat disagrees. “To determine whether or not driving is safe for children, parents must not use age as a condition but rather their skills,” says De la Cruz. “Some kids are slow learners, which is why it’s important to take time to teach them the basics before handing them the car. The minimum age requirement for driving should not be the only determinant. The most apparent sign is passing the driver’s test.”

“It is also important for the teen to learn skills other than driving, such as changing a car’s tire and having basic knowledge of the engine,” adds De la Cruz. “These are essential skills that all drivers should know.”

Aura De Los Santos, who has worked with adolescents as both a clinical and educational psychologist makes the point that physical age is not the same as mental age. “There are children who, when they reach the minimum to drive, have a mature mentality, which shows that they will assume the responsibility of driving. Others have not yet matured and allowed them to drive could be something that puts their lives in danger. “More than physical age,” says De Los Santos, “it is considering the level of mental maturity and preparation that the child has to drive a vehicle.”

wild teen phone driving
Is this teen ready to drive? Ultimately, that is the parents’ decision.

Signs of Driving Readiness

Making the decision that your teen is ready to drive is a big step. What signs should a parent be watching for that show their teen is up to the challenge? Becca Smith says it’s about getting driving knowledge under their belts. But driving readiness, she says, is also about how confident they feel. “If the teen has taken all appropriate driving courses; studied their driver’s manual; and feels confident in their ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, then they may be ready. Teens should also demonstrate an understanding of road safety and proper car maintenance.”

De la Cruz cautions that aside from feeling confident, a teen must have the proper attitude toward driving and learning how to drive. “Parents should hold off from giving their teens driving lessons if the teen is exhibiting a non-serious attitude. This life-skill requires focus and attention, which is why it’s important for parents to intervene if they feel it to be necessary. The driving lessons can be resumed once the teen takes them seriously.”

Teen Ready to Drive Checklist

Aura De Los Santos suggests parents use the following checklist as a guide for knowing when their teen is ready to drive.

When teens are ready to drive they:

  1. Know the driving rules: Driving rules include wearing a seat belt, stopping when the traffic light is red; not going faster than the allowed speed; not driving while intoxicated; and respecting the traffic signs.
  2. Don’t tell lies to their parents: Teens who are ready to drive don’t lie to their parents about where they are going and who they are going with. Parents need to know where their children will be in an emergency, and a teen who does not lie is someone aware of their safety and the concern their parents may have.
  3. Show interest in vehicle care: They are interested in knowing the basic functions of the vehicle and what to do in case of an emergency. They know the numbers for first aid, the police, and their parents.

When to Wait

Not every teen is ready to drive when they hit minimum driving age. What are some of the warning signs that tells parents they should hold off on the driving lessons? De Los Santos says that a teen who doesn’t know driving rules and shows no interest in learning them, definitely isn’t ready. “They don’t want their parents to teach them all the theories related to learning to drive; they have a know-it-all attitude and all they think about is getting in the car and speeding up it. It’s a sign that they aren’t ready to drive yet.

“If teens don’t understand that driving is a responsibility that, if not taken seriously, can endanger their lives and the lives of others, now is not the time for parents to teach them how to drive,” says De Los Santos. “Teens can have a distorted idea of what it is to drive. If a teenager sees driving as an activity for parties, speeding, and just having fun, they are not ready yet. They need more time to mature and to understand that driving is a responsibility.”

Smith says parents can use behavior as a guide. “One key sign that suggests that parents should hold off from giving their teens driving lessons is if they display aggressive or reckless behavior behind the wheel. Parents should also be wary if their teen has not exhibited an understanding of traffic laws and a general sense of responsibility. Driving is a privilege and not a right, so it’s important that teens demonstrate maturity before taking the wheel.”

Begging and Pleading to Drive

It can be hard on parents, saying no, multiple times to a teen who is impatient to begin driving. De la Cruz urges parents not to give in just because teens make a fuss. “It is important for parents to logically address the situation where teens beg to learn to drive while not being ready to do so. If a teen is persistent in their request to learn to drive, then you should explain to them your concerns. Communicate to them the dangers of careless driving. In addition, it would be helpful to set conditions for their request. For example, learning about traffic safety. By accepting and meeting your standards, parents and teens can find common ground.”

driving contract
Many parents find it useful to draw up a driving contract with their teens.

Staying firm, in the scenario where teens beg to drive, is a must, agrees Smith. “Explain to your teen why you feel they aren’t ready yet, and tell them what steps they need to take to get there. Ask them if they understand the importance of being a safe driver, and make sure they understand why you want to wait until they demonstrate that understanding. Remind them that safety is paramount and that you will not hesitate to take away driving privileges if they demonstrate behavior that could affect their safety or the safety of others. Driving is a major responsibility, and teens need to understand that before getting behind the wheel.”

Aura De Los Santos agrees that communication is the place to begin in addressing the impatient teen and taking back the narrative. “The first thing that parents can do is talk to their children about responsible driving and examine with them if they are mentally prepared to assume it. Parents must listen to how their children may feel about this decision and establish agreements. Make clear that you need to see tangible evidence of maturity and driving knowledge before letting them behind the wheel. Explain to the child that more agreements can be made along the way, as they continue to learn more about driving.”

Stay Firm

Some teens never stop their badgering. They want to be ready and able to drive, like their friends. All that begging and pleading is hard on parent. But you have to keep them safe. What’s a parent to do?

“If they continue to beg and plead, then set a timeline for when you will reevaluate the situation,” says Smith. “Explain that if they demonstrate responsibility until then, then you may consider allowing them to begin learning how to drive. You can also enroll them in more driving classes or have them do quizzes to ensure they feel prepared and safe when the time comes.

“Above all else, stay firm on your decision until you know your child is responsible enough to handle being behind the wheel. This will help ensure their safety and success as a driver.”

car keys isolated gray background
Handing them the keys is hard, but it’s also a time to be proud.

When Is A Teen Ready To Drive? Only You Know

Is your teen ready to drive? The truth is, only the parent knows. It’s up to you and your parental Spidey-senses and it’s kind of subjective. But if you think your teen is ready, say yes, hand them the keys, and watch proudly as they drive away.

And if right now it looks as though that moment will never come, just hang in there and hold your ground. You can trust that eventually, that day will arrive. On that day you’ll have answered your own question, “When is a teen ready to drive?” because the answer will be, “Now.”

Smiling teen holds car keys

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.