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Am Fam Physician. 2009;80(12):1486-1491

Background: Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death and acquired disability among adolescents. Because behavior and behavioral choices account for more than 70 percent of all adolescent deaths, it has become increasingly apparent that influencing the driving-related attitudes and behaviors of teenagers is as important as teaching driving safety. It has been shown that involved, supportive parents (those who monitor their children's behavior and provide emotional support) positively affect other adolescent behaviors. Ginsburg and colleagues surveyed adolescents to assess perceived parenting styles to determine association with driving safety.

The Study: The authors used data from the National Young Driver Survey, which involved 5,665 students in grades 9 through 11 in a nationally representative sample in 2006. Data were collected on demographics, behaviors, and attitudes that are thought to be correlated with driving safety, including age, sex, population density, self-reported school performance, substance abuse, and seat belt use. Driving experience and crash history were also self-reported. Attitude items were designed to elicit the adolescents' opinions about the degree to which certain factors affected their safety.

Parenting styles incorporate differing proportions of control and support. These styles were assessed through the same survey using four questions: “My parents give me help and support when I need it”; “In my family, there are clear rules about what I can and cannot do”; “My parents keep track of where I am when I am not in school and away from home”; and, “My parents want to know who I am with when I am not in school and away from home.” Participants responded on a 5-point scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”

Results: There were four parenting styles derived from the responses: (1) authoritarian (low support and high control), (2) authoritative (high support and high control), (3) permissive (high support and low control), and (4) uninvolved (low support and low control). Uninvolved parents were the reference group for all analyses. One half of parents were described as authoritative, 23 percent permissive, 19 percent uninvolved, and 8 percent authoritarian. Teenagers with authoritative parents had a notably lower crash risk in the year preceding the study and experienced fewer crashes as passengers than adolescents with uninvolved parents. Adolescents with authoritative or authoritarian parents were twice as likely to wear their seat belts as a driver or passenger than teenagers with uninvolved parents, and were less likely to report any alcohol use. Teenagers with authoritative parents were the only group to have notably less cellular telephone or text messaging use when driving.

Conclusion: An authoritative parenting style that combines emotional support with clear rules and monitoring has a notable and positive influence on driving-related behaviors and attitudes among adolescents. This protective effect is associated with a decreased rate of motor vehicle crashes in this population.

editor's note: The National Young Driver Survey provides additional data that might give parents pause as they consider driving options for teenagers. García-España and colleagues report that adolescents with primary access to a motor vehicle have twice the crash risk of persons who share a vehicle with other family members, and are more likely to speed and use cellular telephones when driving.1 These associations were only modestly affected by adjustment for age, grade, sex, race, urbanicity, school grades, socioeconomic level, working at a job, and number of hours of driving per week. The statistic that 70 percent of adolescents in this survey report primary access to a vehicle highlights a potential disconnect: parents are granting significant vehicle access to new drivers who are least experienced and at the highest crash risk.—a.c.f.

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Copyright © 2009 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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