Parents in Georgia—some of whom already must work from home while providing school lessons and full-time childcare during this pandemic—just got another quarantine-associated task assigned to them. This week, Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order that said any 16-year-old with a learner's permit will be allowed to get a state driver's license without needing to take and pass the road test usually associated with obtaining said license.
The change was made as part of the state's social-distancing rules, but now the onus is on parents instead of an actual driving instructor to determine if their teenager is qualified to drive. That can add to the various new issues a lot of us are dealing with as we adapt to life with COVID-19. And while Georgia got the first headlines for waiving its test, it's difficult almost anywhere right now to get a license the way you would have three months ago.
The additional pressure on moms and dads can be intense, since driving is already the number-one cause of teenage deaths in the United States, according to the National Safety Council. The NSC has been advocating for more and better teen driving policies for decades through projects such as Drive It Home
There's a reason teens need extra help. Everything about the driving experience is new, so they're the age group most likely to be involved in fatal crashes. In 2018 alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 186 people died in Georgia in crashes involving young drivers (people between ages 15 and 20, the NHTSA's definition). That's the most recent year for which complete statistics are available. Nationwide, the number that year was 4000.
With the new rules, how can parents feel better about giving their teens the keys? Calling Georgia's decision "a short-sighted move that will put all roadway users at risk," the NSC's director of transportation safety, Alex Epstein, told Car and Driver that parents have plenty of good options for an almost-ready driver in their house. One of those would be to simply wait this out.
"I would suggest that there is no necessity to rush the issuance of a driver's license for a new teen driver," Epstein said. The new rule is in effect during the current state of emergency, which should end May 13 but could be extended. Since the rules change is a temporary one, he said, "It would seem to me to be a short time to wait until a professional observer can see how your teen drives."
Epstein pointed out that parents are really in charge here. They're the ones that the state and the kids are relying upon, and they ultimately hold the power. They should follow the rule that demands a minimum of 40 hours of supervised driving, which was in place before the test change, before letting their son or daughter get a license. Parents should also be firm about setting their own limits on what constitutes reasonable and safe driving opportunities, and they should explain to their teen how they can expand privileges with good driving behavior.
For example, when it comes to distracted driving, electronics are often believed to be the main culprit, but Epstein said passengers can be just as distracting. To prevent this, parents could enforce the rule that their new teen driver can't drive with passengers in the car for six months. When they've had the chance to drive in different kinds of weather, times of day, and traffic situations, and they have proven themselves sensible, they can transport others.
"If they take the task of teaching their teen to drive safely," Epstein said, "the parent has the option to set stricter rules and then relax them as the parent feels comfortable observing the new teen driver."
Even though the state has temporarily shifted some of its new-driver education responsibility away from trained educators and onto parents, that doesn't mean parents can't be good instructors. They need to be patient, Epstein said, and remember that many situations teens find themselves in will be completely new experiences. Also—especially if a parent last took a driving course decades ago—it wouldn't hurt to review the current rules of the road and talk their teen through various driving scenarios. After all, even during the pandemic, driving in downtown Atlanta is different than cruising outside of Macon.
Depending on the type of vehicle the teen is driving, it might have some helpful safety features, like GM's Teen Driver Technology (complete with an in-vehicle report card and a 20-second delay before they can shift if they don't buckle up) or Hyundai's Blue Link, which allows parents to set up a geofence, curfew, and speed alert notifications for their teen drivers.
In the end, parents should not let their kids loose on the road unless they have full confidence that their teen can handle it. If the child can't understand that, perhaps mom or dad can point out that the Georgia State Board of Barbers requires 1500 hours of training to get a barber's license. Kids should be glad they don't have to go that long with their parents watching them drive.
"As far as I know," Epstein said, "there are no fatality consequences with improperly trained barbers."