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Teen Drivers and Misbehaving Passengers

Even though driving lessons take place out on the real road under real conditions, there are always a few scenarios that can only be discussed and not really practiced. For instance, we aren’t going to crash a car so a student gets real world experience on what to do next. But we do talk about it so that teen drivers are as prepared as they can be if it ever happens.

There is one particular scenario that is very likely to happen, though, and parents are often surprised to learn that it’s their child’s biggest driving fear. 

“What do I do if my passengers are distracting me?”

When you think about it, this question gets to the heart of the teenage experience. They want to be mature and independent. But they want that independence in order to spend more time with their friends. And when teens get together, maturity is not always the prevailing trait. So how do we prepare them to handle this in the context of safe driving?

What is the PA Law for Teen Drivers and Passengers?

First things first - know the law. In the first 6 months of having a Driver’s License, teens may not have more than 1 non-sibling passenger under age 18 in the car unless the driver’s parent is also in the car. After 6 months, that number of passengers goes up to 3. If the teen has been in a crash that was their fault, the restriction goes back to 1. Once the driver turns 18, they get a regular license, and these restrictions end. 

That’s the law. Remember, house rules can always be more strict than the law. You may have valid reasons for limiting the number of passengers when your teen is driving. But it’s also important to prepare your teen driver for their eventual independent driving. A permanent zero passenger rule is not very practical.

For parents and driving coaches, the best approach is to know the law, make sure your teen driver knows the law, and then prepare them to handle a variety of passenger situations.

The Driver is Always Responsible for Passengers

When teens get themselves in trouble, there’s almost always enough blame to pass around the group. This is not the case with driving. No matter what the passengers are doing, the driver is always responsible for safely operating the vehicle. If there is a crash, the driver can’t point to their passengers and say they were a distraction. That’s the most important thing I make sure my driving students understand before we talk about what to do. They need to know that the buck stops with them.

This truth usually gives teen drivers a confidence boost in confronting their friends. The next step is to actually walk them through the solution. First, young drivers should get used to setting the rules before they even start the car. I have them run through these with me so they get comfortable saying them. This simply sets expectations that seatbelts need to stay on, arms need to stay down, the music needs to be low, and the conversations shouldn’t get loud. Also, the passengers really need to keep their own phones under control. No making Tik Toks or Reels, no Facetiming, and no playing videos or audio. All the extra sound and movement can be distracting, especially for an inexperienced driver.

The next part is enforcement. Teen drivers cannot let their passengers ignore the safety rules. I tell my students that if their friends won’t stop distracting them after asking them once, they need to pull into a parking lot, turn off the car, and tell them to call their parents to pick them up. Most teens will be so shocked that they’ll immediately promise to stop, and the drive can continue. If they have to pull over a second time, though, that’s the end. They need to sit there until someone comes to pick up the misbehaving passengers.

A lot of my students think they could never really confront their friends like this, but I encourage them that when the time comes, they just might be surprised at their own confidence. Not too long ago, in fact, I had a former student reach out to let me know that she had to use this tactic with her friends. She was really glad that we had practiced it, because when her friends started goofing off, she knew exactly what to do. If we hadn’t covered this in lessons, she might not have felt empowered to take control of the situation. And the great news is that it worked! Her friends took her seriously and apologized for disrespecting her as the driver.

Safe Drivers are Confident Individuals

I don’t know how often my students apply what they learn in driving lessons in other areas of their lives. I do have a suspicion, though, that a lot of what we do can be used outside the car. The skills that equip a person as a driver such as paying attention to surroundings, taking responsibility for others, learning the law, and processing information are valuable for most circumstances. 

It’s not just about safe driving; it’s also about developing into a confident and conscientious young adult. If you want to maximize your teen’s driving skills into important life skills, consider professional driving lessons with one of our coaches. Our team is invested in helping kids create safe communities. 


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