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Parents can learn to be better teachers of teen drivers, study says

As the parent of a 16-year-old with a learner’s permit, I was particularly interested to read the results of a study that found parents who use certain online educational tools can improve the driving skills of their teens.

The clinical trial, published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, found that teens whose parents were randomly assigned to learn instructional tools -- such as keeping a practice log and watching two-minute videos on how to teach specific driving skills -- that instruct on teaching specific skills like changing lanes or making a three-point turn -- for about six months were 65 percent less likely to fail a rigorous on-road driving assessment compared to those in a control group whose parents didn’t get such instruction.

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Teens whose parents used the Teen Driving Plan program for about six months also were more likely to learn a variety of skills such as how to navigate at night or during a thunderstorm, how to merge onto a highway, and how to parallel park.

“Parents need to think not only about the number of hours their teen spends driving but also about the kinds of experiences that need to happen across those hours,” said study leader Jessica Mirman, a developmental psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The study was funded by State Farm Insurance.

The researchers found that 6 percent of the teenagers with learner’s permits whose parents used the Teen Driving Plan had their on-road driving assessment terminated due to unsafe driving performance compared to 15 percent of those in the control group. Those administering the test didn’t know which teens were supervised by parents who used the program.

In Massachusetts, teens with a permit are required to have 40 hours of supervised driving with a parent or legal guardian in addition to a formal driver’s education classes. Parents are required to take two hours of driver’s education instruction to teach them how to supervise their teen. But parental education classes aren’t required in all states.

In Pennsylvania, where the study was conducted, such classes for parents aren’t mandatory -- though teens need to get 65 hours behind the wheel in order to meet the requirements for taking their road test to get a license.

Most states have introduced graduated licensing requirements that place certain restrictions on new teen drivers, banning them from, say, driving past midnight or with minors who aren’t siblings. While evidence suggests that this has improved safety and reduced accident fatalities, states haven’t determined the best way to guide parents on instructional driving skills.

“The web-based intervention has the potential for dissemination to a wide audience,” wrote researchers from the University of Iowa and the University of Washington in an editorial that accompanied the study, but added that more research is needed to determine whether such interventions prevent crashes.

While parents don’t yet have access to the videos used in the study, Mirman said she plans to post them on the website teendriversource.org by the end of this year.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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