A new study estimates that an experimental program, funded by State Farm Insurance, could prevent about one out of 12 teenagers from failing driving tests. Beginner drivers who took part in the program with their parents were 65 percent less likely to fail the test than others, the researchers found.
"As adults, we need to acknowledge that not all of us have been the best driving role models throughout our children's lives," said Corinne Peek-Asa, associate dean for research at the University of Iowa's College of Public Health.
"Helping parents understand their role in modeling safe behavior is important, as is having good guidance to parents on how to best help our teens mature into safe drivers," she noted.
Peek-Asa is lead author of a commentary about the study, published in the June 23 online issue of JAMA Pediatrics.
Many parents can play a better role in driver education. Although most states require adult supervision and practice behind the wheel, "parents usually don't receive much guidance on the best ways to supervise their teen's driving to maximize different types of driving experience and to motivate safe behaviors," she explained.
Parents may not expose their teens to a variety of driving situations, said study lead author Jessica Mirman, a research scientist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
The new program -- called the Teen Driving Plan -- uses 53 short videos aimed at building skills such as scanning and merging. It also takes newbie drivers from parking lots to residential streets, highways, business districts and windy rural roads.
In addition, the experimental program allows parents and teens to track their practice-driving and reach certain goals.
For the study, pairs of parents and teenagers with learning permits were randomly assigned to either use the program or simply use the state driver's manual. The families were from southeastern Pennsylvania and took part for 14 months starting in December 2011.
Six percent who took the web-based program -- five of 86 -- failed their driver's tests, compared to 15 percent (10 of 65) who didn't use the program. The families enrolled in the program reported more practice in five of the six driving environments and at night and in bad weather compared with the others.
Peek-Asa said the program has pluses and minuses. "One benefit of a web-based program is that it can be widely available to many parents, and web-based approaches tend to be low cost," she said.
"However, there is no way to force parents to use it, and strategies are necessary so that parents can be aware that the program exists," she added.
Also, "one challenge with teen driving research is that studies may tend to include families that already prioritize safe driving. Getting to the higher-risk families is a challenge," Peek-Asa pointed out.
Developing programs for families without Internet access, who are not primary English-speakers, who have low literacy, or who don't have a car for practice are other challenges to consider, she added.
Some parts of the program will be available online later this year at teendriversource.org, Mirman said. It's not clear when the full program will be available or whether there will be a fee, she said.
"We're still developing it and figuring out the best ways to disseminate the program so that it is optimally effective," she said.
For more about teen driver education, see the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.