“People Safety” Skills for New Teen Drivers and Their Teen Passengers

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Impact Teen Drivers

The Impact Teen Drivers program builds a strong foundation of awareness of the dangers of being distracted while driving and of the tragedy and heartbreak resulting from car accidents, which give teens these important messages:

  • You don’t want to be hurt or dead.
  • You don’t want the pain of causing someone else to be hurt or dead.
  • Driver distraction due to inexperience and poor decision-making can lead to accidents with tragic consequences.
  • Positive decision-making skills can prevent heartbreak, injury, and death.

In Teenpower, our experience is that just building awareness of potential danger is not enough to change behavior in the long run. Young people also need to have the skills to take charge of the emotional and physical safety of themselves and others as well as an understanding of the feelings that can get in the way of making wise decisions. In addition, they need reminders about safety that become part of their daily lives – just like we have signs on the road to remind us to slow down, watch out for pedestrians, etc.

Thanks to our collaboration with Impact Teen Drivers, the following article describes how to apply Kidpower’s Successful Practice teaching method to preparing new teen drivers and their teen passengers to use mindfulness, boundary-setting, and advocacy skills to increase safety while driving and riding together.

A Call to Action to Save Lives – What Teen and Adult Leaders Can Do

Thousands of tragedies can be prevented each year if teen and adult leaders take action to build understanding and skills to ensure safe driving. Leaders might be teens, teachers, parents, or other caring adults. Leaders need to make it a priority to:

  • Lead by example. We can’t expect others to be safe drivers and passengers unless we are doing this ourselves.
  • Make practice a priority. New drivers need lots of practice of driving in different traffic situations and for rehearsing how to handle potential emergencies.
  • Introduce and discuss the issues and dangers related to driving while distracted.
  • Address the feelings and messages that can interfere with making safe choices.
  • Make sure everyone understands the laws about passengers and curfews for new teen drivers.
  • Get active in working with teens to make and keep commitments that will increase their ability to make safe decisions as drivers and passengers. For example, have teens create and sign Safe Driver and Safe Passenger pledges. Create daily visual reminders such as signs that go into cars.
  • Provide opportunities to help teens remember positive decision-making to ensure safe driving. For example, ask teens to repeat their pledges before a weekend or holiday.
  • Develop skills by having teens identify typical situations and then rehearse mindfulness, boundary-setting, and advocacy skills in contexts that are relevant to their lives. Provide opportunities to practice being assertive, powerful, respectful, and persistent in speaking up.

Managing Feelings that Can Get in the Way

Once teens understand that distracted driving and poor decision-making can be dangerous even for the most skilled of drivers, it is important to acknowledge that speaking up about unsafe behavior is likely to be difficult.  Setting boundaries about unsafe driving can be very embarrassing, cause everyone to lose face, and make your friends mad at you. Leaving an unsafe situation might be inconvenient as well as upsetting.

The following discussion and leading questions can help to create a framework for thinking about the impact of temporary feelings on decisions that might have long-term consequences. As the Impact Teen Drivers website videos show, it might seem like no big deal to be the one to volunteer to ride in a car without a seatbelt when there aren’t enough for the passengers. Unfortunately, if that car crashes, this casual choice can end up as a life-and-death decision. Accidents can happen in an instant if people are in a hurry or not paying attention. Racing out to grab a bite to eat can suddenly turn into a tragedy where your life is never the same again.

Teenpower’s Underlying Principle is that the safety and well-being of each of us are more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience or offense. This principle sounds easy to follow at first glance.

However, does the idea of losing face or causing others to lose face seem terrible to you?  Do you or people you know hate to be embarrassed? Do you or people you know hate to embarrass others? Do you or people you know hate to be bothered when you’re busy? Do you or people you know hate to bother other people when they are busy? Do you or people you know hate to have people upset with you? Do you or people you know hate that feeling inside yourself of being mad at or hurt by others?

So, while it’s true that safety and well-being are more important, the reality is that fear of losing face, embarrassment, inconvenience, and offense are powerful feelings that get in the way a lot of the time. However, what’s going to have more long-term impact on your life? Losing your life, causing others to lose their lives, years of loss by you and your loved ones – or making the courageous decision to have your voice heard? What’s more impactful? – saving face or everyone’s safety? What’s more impactful: being inconvenienced for a while by not having a ride, or your safety?

Staying Mindful of Our Power to Choose and Managing Emotional Triggers

When we are overwhelmed with feelings, it is hard to stay mindful so that we can think clearly and make wise decisions. Emotional triggers are thoughts, words, or behavior that can cause us to implode or explode with overwhelmed feelings. Negative triggers might cause us to implode inwardly and feel bad about ourselves; to explode outwardly and get very angry or upset in a loud way; or to go on automatic pilot and feel as if we must do something right away or the world will end. Positive triggers might cause us to get so caught up in having fun or wanting someone’s approval that we forget our values and our promises.

The best way to stay mindful and manage triggers is to ask yourself, “When are times that I or others in my life might become thoughtless or get triggered? What does it look like when I’m triggered or thoughtless? What are some things that I can do to help myself to stop, get centered, and become mindful instead of being stuck into inaction or triggered into poor decisions?” Write your answers down. Visualize getting stuck or triggered and becoming mindful instead.

Coach everyone to practice getting centered quickly by telling them to:

  • Wiggle your toes to feel where your feet are;
  • Press your hands against something to feel where your hands are;
  • Straighten your back;
  • Take a breath and let it out again slowly just loud enough that you can hear it yourself (In some kinds of yoga, this is called the “Ocean-Sounding Breath”); and
  • Look at or focus on something near you.

Visualizations are powerful tools for helping us to stay mindful. Imagine being a driver who is late getting home. Imagine before you start that car taking a moment to get centered. Think about how important you are to your family and how you need to drive in order get home safely. Imagine having a passenger who says, “Hurry up! You’re driving like my grandma!” Imagine re-centering yourself instead of reacting and saying something like, “Thank you! I want all of us to live to be older than our grandmas!”

Imagine being a passenger in a car where the driver is having such an animated discussion with another friend that he or she is not paying attention. Imagine getting centered and thinking about how important safe driving is to everyone’s future at this moment. Imagine saying, “Please stop the car or stop the discussion so that you can focus on driving safely.” Imagine the driver telling you to “Shut up about my driving!” Imagine re-centering yourself, focusing on your future instead of your feelings of the moment, and saying, “Please stop the car. I don’t feel safe!”

When you feel stuck or triggered, it is as if your awareness leaves your body and the present moment. Getting centered helps you to regain your mindfulness so that you can stay in charge of what you say and do and so that you can make your best choices based on really thinking about the actual situation in the here and now.

Insults are a common trigger. You can protect your feelings by imagining using a Teenpower Trash Can to catch and throw away hurtful words – and by giving yourself a positive message to replace the insult. Suppose that someone says, “You are such a __________!” Fill in the blank with the most offensive language you can think of. You can imagine catching the offensive words, throwing them into a trash can, and then saying something positive to yourself such as, “I’m proud of who I am. I am in charge of my safety.”

Often, insults come in the form of hurtful teasing. For example, “You are such a goodie-goodie! Why can’t you loosen up and have fun?” Don’t let someone’s negative labels trigger you into going against your better judgment. Instead, find answers for labels and comments that you find really obnoxious, such as, “Thank you. I am indeed just too good to be true and I really hate having fun. That’s why I care about getting places safely instead of ending up in the hospital or jail.” You might say these answers out loud or just to yourself, but it is amazingly useful to have them ready.

What Drivers and Passengers Can Do

Empowerment comes from knowing you have choices. Lead a discussion where you encourage the group to come up with answers to the following questions, but be prepared with answers yourself.

As the driver, you are responsible for doing your best to ensure the safety of your passengers, others on the road, and yourself. What does this mean?

  • Don’t let anything distract you from driving safely, even for a second.
  • Make sure everyone is buckled up.
  • Obey the law and don’t drive if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Speak up when a passenger is being too distracting.
  • Remove someone from your car if you have to.
  • Notice what others are doing on the road, so you can take preventative action.

As the passenger, you are responsible for doing your best to ensure the safety of everyone in the car and others on the road. What does this mean?

  • Support the driver in paying close attention to the driving and not getting distracted by anything else.
  • Speak up if someone is driving unsafely.
  • Avoid getting in the car with someone who you know is a less safe driver.
  • Get out of the car if the person driving is acting careless, intoxicated, or dangerous.
  • Notify adults in a position of power or the authorities if you know someone is driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or is not following the law, or is about to break the law.

What is the difference between tattling or snitching and being responsible about reporting dangerous behavior?

  • Tattling and snitching are for the purpose of getting someone in trouble, rather than for the purpose of stopping dangerous behavior.
  • Driving when drunk or high is dangerous behavior, which harms too many innocent people. All of us are responsible for taking action when we know that dangerous behavior is threatening the innocent.
  • People who drive when they are drunk or high are being destructive as well as breaking the law, even if they get away with it for a while. It is not tattling or snitching to report destructive illegal behavior – it is about ensuring everyone’s safety.
  • You might need to promise not to say anything to get out of a situation gracefully. However, you are morally obligated not to keep promises about keeping potentially dangerous behavior a secret.

Addressing the Messages that Can Stop Us from Taking Charge of our Safety

Have teens come up with their own message and answers as much as they can, but use this as a checklist to make sure the important points are covered.

Since you know safe driving is extremely important every time you get into a car, what messages do you or others give yourselves that get in the way of your taking charge of driving safety in the actual moment? What are some potentially effective answers to these “getting in the way” messages?

Unsafe Message: It won’t happen to me.
Answer: This can happen to anyone. It’s my job to do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen to me or my friends.

Unsafe Message: This will just take a second.
Answer: Getting into an accident takes less than a second.

Unsafe Message: It’s not really distracting me.
Answer: I’d like to believe that, but I know better.

Unsafe Message: It’s not that bad.
Answer: Things can go from wonderful to awful in an instant. I am in charge of doing my best to prevent this from happening.

Unsafe Message: I’ve got to take just this one call.
Answer: This person can wait until I can give our conversation my full attention.

Unsafe Message: I’ve got to get this done.
Answer: If I have an accident, it will take far more time. My job when driving is just to drive.

Unsafe message: I’ve got to answer just this one text message.
Answer: I don’t want to be an “intexticated” driver.

Unsafe Message: I just want to listen to the music and not have to think so much.
Answer: Then I should stop driving.

Unsafe Message: I don’t want to be paranoid.
Answer: It’s not being paranoid to learn from other people’s tragedies. The best way I can honor the dead is to learn from their mistakes.

Unsafe Message: I don’t want to be late. This can’t wait.
Answer: It will cost me far more problems and time to have an accident than to be late or to do this later.

Unsafe Message: I don’t want to embarrass my friends, annoy them, bother them, or hurt their feelings.
Answer: Our safety and well-being are more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience or offense.

Unsafe message: I want to be cool.
Answer: It’s totally uncool to drive unsafely or to be in a car where someone else is driving unsafely.

Making a Plan for Remembering to Stay Mindful and Take Charge

Explain that most people of all ages need reminders in order to stay in charge of our well-being. Our busy lives can make it hard to remember what we are supposed to do and not do. Here are different kinds of tools that can be useful in making and keeping commitments to ourselves and others.

Pledges. Putting plans and commitments into writing helps to make them much more real than just talking. To create a pledge, brainstorm what you think is important to commit to doing or not doing for keeping yourself and others safe while driving or riding. Write all the ideas down, no matter how silly. Then, pick the ones that are most important to you and write these down as a Pledge. Make it formal by putting something like, “I, _________________, am committed to keeping myself and others safe. When driving a car and/or being a passenger, I promise to _________________.” Sign and date your pledge and keep it somewhere to refer to before busy times when you might be using a car.

Affirmations. Affirmations are positive statements that help us to keep whatever is important to us in our minds. People use affirmations to help them to change bad habits or to develop good habits for how they think, feel, speak, and act. Create an affirmation or a mindfulness statement to repeat to yourself each time you start to step into a car. Write it down and memorize it. For example, “When this car is in motion, I am responsible for the safety of myself and others. Nothing is more important than my driving safely.” Or, “Even though I want everyone in this car to have fun and like me, our safety is more important than being liked or having fun. I am going to speak up every time anyone does something that seems unsafe.” Or, “Even though I don’t like being told what to do, I am going to listen if someone expresses a concern about safety. Everyone’s safety is more important than my feelings.”

Signs. Written signs make the rules clear and visible. It’s much easier to speak up about the rules when the signs are there. Create and post signs for cars such as No Distractions When In Motion orSupport Safe Driving!

Permission and Agreements. If you are a driver, tell your passengers ahead of time that you expect that they will support your driving safely by speaking up if anything seems unsafe to them and by listening when you ask them to stop being distracting. If you are going to be a passenger, explain ahead of time that you have a commitment to safe driving and ask for permission to speak up if you don’t feel safe. The agreement needs to be that everyone in the car will act as a team to ensure safe behavior and, that if there is a difference of opinion, you will err on the side of safety.

Practice. Knowing something in your head is not the same as being able to do it well in real life. The best way to get good at doing anything is to practice — and this is true of boundary-setting, mindfulness, and advocacy skills as well. The following section describes how to rehearse what to say and what to do in order to prevent driving accidents due to distractions.

Action. Take a leadership role in building awareness and skills with the teens in your life. Create a school or community service learning project to educate everyone about the importance of safe driving and how to address the obstacles that get in the way. Seek ideas and funding from resources like Impact Teen Drivers.

Creating Role-Plays to Rehearse Skills

Role-playing allows students to practice the skills that they learn so that they know exactly what to do in a real-life situation. Many studies show that in real life, people are far more likely to do what they have practiced than what they have only talked about. Role-plays are like mini-plays with a place, a protagonist (central character), a person who creates a problem for the protagonist to deal with, and a plot that, in this case, ends with the problem being resolved safely.

The steps for creating role-plays are:

  • Imagine actual situations where unsafe driving starts to develop.
  • Define what someone might be able to say and do to make the situation safer.
  • Coach everyone to act out together the words to say and the actions to take. This will look silly.
  • Practice how to persist if someone has a negative response to your setting a boundary.
  • Create a “car” out of chairs as a stage-set.
  • For each role-play, decide who is going to be the one acting unsafely and who is going to take charge of safety.
  • Agree on the plot and the script. The people in the role-play are in or near the car together. Either the driver or the passenger does something unsafe. The protagonist speaks up. The other person reacts negatively. The protagonist responds positively and persists in setting the boundary or taking other action to resolve the situation safely.
  • Coach the protagonist to be assertive rather than passive or aggressive in setting boundaries. The goal is to be powerful, respectful, and persistent in speaking up.

Develop your role-plays by discussing the following questions. These role-plays create opportunities for practice and can also provide ideas for videos or plays that promote safe driving.

What are some typical situations where mindfulness and boundaries might be necessary in the car?

  • Someone starts making really funny jokes.
  • Someone gets into an argument.
  • Someone turns up the music.
  • Another driver, bike rider, or pedestrian is really rude and people in the car want to get back at him or her.
  • Someone in another car or on the street is really cute and people in the car want to get her or his attention.
  • The driver is acting drunk or high or just reckless.
  • The driver is acting distracted, in a hurry, or impatient with other cars.
  • The driver is getting really involved in an intense conversation.
  • The driver is talking on a cell phone or texting.
  • A passenger is trying to distract the driver as a joke.

In each case, what are some things someone might say or do to make the situation safer?

  • Speak up in a clear respectful way using an “I Message.” For example, “I feel uncomfortable when you are laughing so hard that you are not paying attention to the road. Please either focus on driving or stop the car until you are done laughing.”
  • Remind people about their pledge before you start driving.
  • Decide not to go with someone who you know drives unsafely.
  • Ask for an agreement with someone who you would like to have as a driver or a passenger, but who has been unsafe in the past.
  • Leave if you are a passenger and the driver will not listen to your concerns.
  • If you are the driver, ask a passenger who is not being safe to get out of the car.

Who dislikes being told what to do? I know I do and I’ll bet that most of the people reading this do too. It is normal for people to react negatively when someone sets boundaries. What are some common negative reactions you might face if you speak up about unsafe driving?

  • Being told you are “over-sensitive” or “paranoid.”
  • Someone getting hurt feelings. For example, “I thought you liked me.”
  • Someone denying that the problem you see is happening. For example, “That’s crazy! I didn’t do THAT!”
  • Someone feeling challenged. For example, “I know what I’m doing! This isn’t affecting my driving at all!”
  • Someone being rejecting. For example, “If you are going to be like THAT, I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

What are some responses you might make to someone’s negative reaction?

  • Acknowledging feelings and re-stating your boundary. For example, “I like you and I think you are a great driver, but I don’t feel safe when you text and drive at the same time.”
  • Being willing to leave. “I care about you, but our safety is more important than our feelings of the moment. Please stop or I’ll find another way home.”

Now, start the role-plays. Give each person the chance to be the problem-causer and the problem-solver. If your protagonist seems whiny, uncertain, or attacking about setting and holding to boundaries, repeat the practice and coach the person who is practicing to:

  • Have a regular face and use a calm respectful voice.
  • Use positive “I Messages” to state what you want and don’t want.
  • Have your attitude and body language stay aware, calm, respectful, and confident, no matter how the other person behaves.

Finally, be positive, powerful, and respectful in your coaching. Act like a director or prompter in a play to ensure that the practices are successful. Focus on all the positive things that teens can do to keep themselves safe while driving or being a passenger rather than on all the depressing or scary things that might happen. We want young people to make safe choices because they believe this is the right thing to do rather than because of scare tactics. Enjoy the experience of working and practicing together; be ready to smile, relax, and have fun. Even though the reasons we practice these skills are very serious, being calm and upbeat while staying focused on successful practicing is more effective than showing frustration or lecturing.

Putting Safety First

Remember that your purpose with these discussions and practices is to empower young people to take charge of their safety, to give them tools for building better relationships, and to prevent them from being harmed.

Talking about feelings and practicing can be uncomfortable. It is normal for some students to complain that they know everything already and that they are bored. Just say cheerfully something like, “For my peace of mind, I need to see that you really can use these skills by having you practice. Your safety and my peace of mind are worth a little boredom.”

What we want to communicate is that safety while driving or riding is important.  It is worth a little time and thought to help prepare yourself to handle different problems that may come up.



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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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