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Family Health Magazine - ADOLESCENT HEALTH

Teens Behind the Wheel
Parents play a key role in teaching teens to drive safely

“Why are you slowing down?” my thirteen-year-old asks as I approach a yellow traffic light. “The light is yellow, that means slow, slow, slow,” I say, reminding him of the rhyme he learned in kindergarten. “You should have sped up. Now, we have to wait,” he says grumpily. I look at my son and realize that the time for kindergarten rhymes has passed. Next year he will be old enough to get his learner’s license. He will soon be making his own driving decisions.

Parents play a critical role in helping young learners become safe and skilled drivers. First, we should be safe and competent drivers ourselves. Remember, our children are watching! We can do many things to help our teens learn to drive well.

Teens at risk

In Canada, an average of 375 kids between the ages of 15 to 19 are killed in motor vehicle crashes each year. Almost 30,000 need treatment for their injuries.

Teenage drivers represent only seven per cent of Canadians, yet account for 11.7 percent of motor vehicle-related fatalities and 12.5 per cent of injuries. Too many teenage drivers are involved in motor vehicle fatalities and injuries. One in five 16 year-old drivers will be involved in a collision during their first year of driving unsupervised.
Distraction from other teen passengers, night driving, drinking and driving – all are key risk factors for teens behind the wheel. Not using a seat belt also increases the risk of injury and death. Sadly, teen drivers frequently overestimate their abilities and underestimate the risks of driving. To put it simply, they lack driving experience and, in some cases, maturity.

Graduated licensing

Graduated licensing programs offer one way to help new young drivers gain experience before heading out on the road alone. All new drivers must go through at least two stages to get a license with full privileges. In stage one, the learner phase, drivers must drive under some restrictions and with a responsible adult for a set period of time. The actual amount of time varies between provinces. This learning period allows the new driver to experience a variety of driving conditions with somebody in the car to advise.


Stage 1 - Learner's


License Class

Minimum Age

Minimun Duration

B.C. 7L 16 12 months **
Alberta 7 14 12 months
Sask 7 16 or 15* 9 months ***
Manitoba 5-L 16 or 15.5* 9 months
Ontario G1 16 12 months

Stage 1 - Intermediate


License Class

Minimum Age

Minimun Duration

B.C. 7N 17 or 16 years, 9 months ** 24 months
Alberta 5-GDL 16 24 months
Sask CI. 5 N1 16 6 months
Manitoba 5-I 16 yrs 3 mos * 15 months
Ontario G2 17 or 16 years, 8 months *** 12 months

Stage 3 - Full


License Class

Minimum Age

Minimun Duration

B.C. 5 18 years  
Alberta 5 17.5  
Sask CI. 5 N2 17.5  
Manitoba 5-Full 17.5*  

* If enrolled in high school driver education
** This time is reduced with driver education
***Must complete the required 30 class and six in-car hours of driver education trainer prior to these nine months.

In the second stage, the new driver may drive alone, with fewer restrictions, while continuing to gain experience. The minimum time spent in this phase also varies from province to province. In some areas, the stage two driver must then pass an advanced road test to receive a license with full privileges. (See Table 1 for provincial details.)
Graduated licensing places restrictions on new drivers. Rules vary in different parts of the country, but usually involve:

  • a minimum age allowed to hold a learner’s license and to move onto the next phase
  • an accompanying driver’s minimum age and years of holding a full-privilege license
  • times of day allowed to drive (usually there are night restrictions)
  • the number of passengers allowed
  • alcohol consumption (usually no alcohol is allowed)
  • the number of demerits allowed (usually less than for a fully licensed driver).

Graduated licensing programs aim to improve road safety and reduce injuries and death. New drivers have a chance to gain the skills needed to handle the complex task of driving. What’s more, graduated licensing works. A recent review of graduated licensing programs in four countries showed that they reduce crash rates among 16-year-old drivers by up to 84 per cent. That is a lot of injuries prevented and lives saved!

Professional driver education and practice with parents

Graduated licensing programs do not take away the parental responsibility of helping teens become safe drivers. It actually gives parents some added credibility. Under graduated licensing programs, a new driver with a learner’s licence must drive for a minimum set period of time with a responsible adult before moving to the next stage. For most teens, this means driving with Mom and Dad. Guess who is looking good now?

What can we do to help our teens gain practical driving experience?

The first thing most parents do is enrol their teen in professional driver education. Driver education teaches the basics of driving. It is a great way for new drivers to get the knowledge and skills they need to become safe and competent drivers.

Still, driver education is just the beginning. In western Canada and Ontario, the minimum number of hours of on-the-road instruction that driver education programs are required to provide varies. Minimums range from six (with high school driver education) to 12 hours. Yet traffic safety experts say these drivers need at least 50 hours of supervised practice in a variety of driving conditions to gain the experience they need.

Sound like a lot? Consider this: once children have completed the first level of swimming lessons, do we leave them alone in the deep end of the pool? No! We continue to encourage, teach and supervise until our child masters all of the skills and has the maturity to swim alone. The same is true for driving. Ten hours of on-road instruction can teach the basics of driving, but then new drivers must practice, practice, practice. We should continue to watch over teens until we are sure they have the skills, maturity, and experience needed to drive alone.

Many parents do not realize they need to do more than enrol their teen in driver education. Let the professionals teach them how to drive, right? In some ways, this is true. New drivers should learn the basics of driving from a professional who can make sure they start off with the best knowledge and skills. On the other hand, driver education cannot provide the amount of practice necessary. Parents can. We do not have to be professional driving instructors to help our teen gain practical driving experience. Our job is to be a coach, not an expert.

Where to Find More Information


British Columbia
(Tuning Up for Drivers - for parents, RoadSense for Drivers)

Alberta workbook
(Geared to Go: A Workbook for Coaching New Drivers)

(Saskatchewan Driver’s Handbooks)

(Graduated Driver Licensing – Your Guide)
Co-Pilot Manual for parents and coaches, available at all Manitoba registries.

(Ready for the Road - Log Book)

Once your teen is licensed

Even after your teen has earned a second-stage license, you can do more to help in learning to drive. The L.E.A.R.N. program developed in Alberta gives parents the information and encouragement needed to set their own family rules about driving (see sidebar ).

As parents, we are involved in our teen’s driving in many ways – from coaching and supervision to controlling access to the family vehicle. Setting rules is an effective way to help our teens learn to drive under safe conditions. Most parents set rules – whether their teens admit it or not! Talk with your teen driver and set family rules that you all can live with. When you help your teen L.E.A.R.N. to drive, you protect your own child while helping to make the road safer for everyone.

LEARN Program Principles

Limit the number of passengers. Passengers increase the crash risk for new young drivers. Fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers are more likely when there are other teens in the vehicle – and the risk increases with each additional teen passenger. Consider a no-passenger rule for at least the first year of unsupervised driving. New drivers need time to practise without the distraction of other teen passengers.

Everyone wears a seatbelt – every time. Seatbelts provide the best protection in a crash, reducing the chance of injury or death by more than 50 per cent. Over half of teen drivers and passengers seriously injured in crashes over a five-year period were not wearing seatbelts. Teach your teen to begin driving only once everyone in the vehicle is buckled up. Help your teen understand that it’s not about avoiding a ticket - it’s about saving lives!

Driver Education Minimum Standards

Minimum 15 hours classroom and 10 hours in-vehicle
British Columbia
Minimum 16 hours classroom, 12 hours in-vehicle, and four discretionary hours to be used in either learning situation
High school program: minimum 30 hours classroom and mandatory 6 hours in-vehicle
High school program: minimum 27 hours classroom, 8 hours driving in-vehicle driving, 8 hours observing in-vehicle
25 hours classroom, 10 hours in-vehicle

After dark, it’s time to park. Teen drivers and passengers are at a higher risk of serious crashes between 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. Consider restricting your teen’s driving during these hours, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Studies show that the number of nighttime crashes involving 16-year-old drivers can be reduced by almost 50 per cent if driving restrictions start before midnight. You can renegotiate this rule once your teen shows responsibility and has more driving experience.

Restrict driving in rural areas. Serious injury crashes involving teens happen in much more often in rural areas. While some drivers involved in serious rural collisions come from the city, most live in rural areas. Rural driving exposes drivers to more hazards including gravel roads, soft shoulders, narrow lanes, poor visibility, long distances and deteriorating road conditions. Since there is less traffic in rural areas, teens may feel safe taking risks like not wearing seatbelts, drinking and driving or running stop signs. If your teen drives on rural roads, set rules on where, when and with whom they can drive.

No alcohol or drugs – ever. At least 50 per cent of all teen drivers involved in serious collisions are intoxicated. Late nights or rural areas can limit a teenager’s transportation options and expose them to greater risks. GDLs put tough restrictions on alcohol use during the learner and probationary periods with a zero alcohol tolerance policy. To further protect your family, enforce your own rules about zero alcohol and drug use – even once your teen has a full-privilege license.

Teaching your teen to drive well takes time and effort. As with any life skill, our children deserve to have the wisdom and experience they need to drive well. You will be repaid in knowing that your child is gaining skills that will last a lifetime.

FAMILY HEALTH is written with the assistance of
Alberta College of Family Physicians
FAMILY HEALTH is written with the assistance of
Alberta College of Family Physicians
While effort is made to reflect accepted medical knowledge and practice, articles in Family Health Online should not be relied upon for the treatment or management of any specified medical problem or concern and Family Health accepts no liability for reliance on the articles. For proper diagnosis and care, you should always consult your family physician promptly. © Copyright 2019, Family Health Magazine, a special publication of the Edmonton Journal, a division of Postmedia Network Inc., 10006 - 101 Street, Edmonton, AB T5J 0S1    [AD_FHc06]
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