Ages 15–18 | Parenting Tools | Tweens + Teens | Family Safety

Road to Freedom: A Parent's and Teen's Guide to Driver's Ed

Here's all you need to know, from Washington's rules and available driver's ed classes, to teens opting out and new road concerns

When many of us parents were 15 going on 16, passing our driving test topped the list of important life milestones. We can remember arriving at that government office the first hour of the first day we became eligible, itching to get licensed and for the freedom that license brought. As our own teens are 15 going on 16, the path to a driver’s license looks different, and not just because of changes in the law. It turns out not every teen today is aching to take the steering wheel.

Rules and schools

The road to obtaining your license as a teenager in Washington state is pretty straightforward, according to Robert Hensley, owner and instructor at 911 Driving School, which has five locations in the greater Seattle area. Rules listed at the Department of Licensing website include:

  • At age 15, teens can enroll in Traffic Safety Education (TSE) classes, which include 30 hours of classroom instruction, a minimum of six hours of driving practice, and a minimum of one hour of behind-the-wheel observation.
  • Students need an instruction permit to practice driving. If they are younger than age 15 and a half, they must be enrolled in a driver’s training school and have their parents’ signed permission. From age 15 and a half to age 17, they need to have passed the driver’s knowledge test and have their parents’ signed permission.

“Parents have to have a lot of buy-in for teens to get their license. If your child enrolls in driver’s education, you are going to be busy as a parent, essentially teaching your child to drive because they need 50 hours of supervised driving practice with you before they can get a license,” says Hensley.

Parents and teens usually pick driving schools based on schedules, word-of-mouth reviews, convenience and proximity to home. Some school districts partner with driving schools by offering training on campus after school.

Washington state has a graduated license system: For the first six months after getting their license, new drivers are not allowed to have any passengers outside of their immediate family; for the next six months, passengers must be limited to three friends. For the first licensed year, they are not allowed to drive between 1 and 5 a.m.

“It’s the unusual driving situations that catch teens off guard, such as rain and night driving,” says Hensley, a former police officer. The leading cause of death for teenagers are motor vehicle accidents, with seven teens between the ages of 16 and 19 dying daily in the U.S. Another issue to ponder: Young drivers with ADHD are from two to four times as likely as those without ADHD to have an accident, according to a 2007 study.

Opting out

These scary stats may mean parents breathe a sigh of relief when their children decide to delay the license process, which, according to recent data from the AAA Foundation, is a growing trend. In 2013, only 44 percent of teens got a license within one year of turning legal age, compared to 66 percent in 1993. But why are teens opting out? Results from the 2014 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey hint at one possible explanation, says Sheri Gazitt, teen and parent educator, and founder of Teen Wise. In King County, 65 percent of surveyed 10th-graders said they felt nervous or anxious, and 50 percent were unable to stop or control worrying.

“Many teens are already anxious, so adding something big is one thing too much. My oldest daughter didn’t want the responsibility of driving,” Gazitt says.

Teens are busy, too, so finding all the hours needed for driver’s education is often impossible. Some parents say their interest outweighs their teen’s interest. “If our son really wanted to go anywhere, he has no qualms about getting on the bus. I think what finally led him to enroll in class is the need to have street cred amid the older boys with licenses on his basketball team,” says Mike Spear, a Seattle dad.

While we might recall desperately needing that license to see our friends, teens today are much less isolated, thanks to social networking. “They are walking their friends through the house on FaceTime, using Instagram and Snap Chat, and playing ‘Minecraft’ virtually. There’s so many new ways to connect that don’t involve driving,” Gazitt says. 

Brave new roads

Besides the usual pressures, including alcohol, peer pressure and parental rules to follow, Washington state teens have one more issue to keep in mind now: legalized marijuana. Hensley says that despite recent legalization, drivers high on marijuana are not a new phenomenon, and what’s vital is educating our youth on the repercussions of their decisions, along with teaching defensive driving so they can spot and avoid dangerous drivers.

“When you get a license, you agree to provide a breath sample [alcohol test] and a blood sample [marijuana test], and the legal consequences for both underage drinking or smoking pot and driving under these influences are huge,” Hensley says.

Seattle parent Lili Lengua believes our children might find themselves in situations we never found ourselves in. “An attorney spoke at my daughter’s school about the legal issues kids are facing. While we worried about friends [carrying] open containers in backpacks [as a passenger], our kids will have to wonder about friends having pot in their backpacks. They have to be really careful at a time when they are worried about not appearing uncool,” Lengua says.

Driving under the influence these days can also mean driving while distracted, as in driving while texting. “The biggest contributors to accidents are no. 1, speeding, but the no. 2 is distracted driving. If you want to act like a drunk driver, text while driving,” Hensley says.

Parents can invest in safe driver apps that take away the distraction of texting; and some apps give parents a score on how well their children are driving, along with a GPS location (such as Safe Driver).

Of course, watching your own teen driver navigate their road to freedom isn’t all doom and gloom. “It’s pretty cool watching my daughter behind the wheel,” Lengua says. “She’s growing up, and that’s pretty amazing.”

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