Youth may experience few rites of passage in our culture, but one major moment during adolescence comes close: obtaining the teenager’s passport to freedom—the driver’s license.

Probably no other single event produces more changes in the relationship with your child than the acquisition of that small picture ID lovingly carried in purse, wallet, pocket, or backpack.

Access to a car presents even more opportunities for teenagers to stay on the go. For the first time, they have the ability to go where they want without depending on a parent to take them there. This freedom can be intoxicating. They drive themselves to school functions, to extracurricular activities, or to work. Friends drive over to visit—or to pick them up to go somewhere else. They spend less and less time with family.

It is at this critical juncture that some parents lose control of their child. If you fail to place some sensible limits on a teen’s schedule, it may irrevocably change the atmosphere on your home. You will need to work closely with your teenagers to help them make good decisions that allow them to get enough rest, to fulfill all their responsibilities, and to spend time with the family.

At the same time, remember that the right to obtain the coveted driver’s license and operate a car independently is one of the best trump cards a mom and dad hold in the parenting deck. Most children look forward to the day when they will smoothly back Dad’s car out of the garage, wave, and drive off—alone. For a host of reasons, we parents need to be sure they are ready, because the number one killer of teenagers remains death in an automobile accident.

It’s not enough for a child to have the physical and mental coordination to drive. They also must be emotionally and spiritually mature to understand the responsibility of guiding a 4,000 pound, potentially lethal machine down a highway at 65 miles an hour.

We know that every family must shape its own policies related to driving the family car, but here are four lessons learned by this dad and mom who have maintained and insured a fleet of up to six (very used) cars for the family.

1. Don’t feel rushed about granting driving privileges.

The key words here are “rushed” and “privilege.” Driving is not a constitutional right that every parent must grant on the very day a child is eligible for a learner’s permit or driver’s license. Some children are ready early; others are not.

In Arkansas where we live, a 14-year-old can obtain a permit to drive with an adult. We think that is too young and did not allow any of our children to start driving at that age. We see no reason for a teenager to start learning to drive until at least 15.

2. Insist on driver’s education.

If at all possible, send your child through some formal instruction. You also will need to help teach driving skills, but often teenagers listen better to a stranger. A driver’s training certificate will reduce your insurance bill, too.

3. Impose meaningful restrictions.

Here are some of the rules we instituted for our children:

  • When they received their license, they were not allowed to drive alone until we felt the child was mature enough to handle the responsibility.
  • We also required them to drive 10 miles per hour under the stated speed limit. A 55 mph speedway became 45 mph for a limited time. We didn’t do this for a long period, because driving slower than the traffic flow can be dangerous, but we did ask our teen to start out well under control of his or her automobile.
  • We limited new drivers to specific routes—like to and from school only. Driving in town on busy streets was reserved until the child had demonstrated enough composure to be able to handle the pressure.
  • For safety’s sake, we did not allow our daughters to drive alone after certain hours. We also insisted with all of our children that they keep plenty of gas in the tank. We did not want them stalled on the highway.

4. Set up a clear system of penalties.

When beginning to drive, we allowed each of our children to use one of our older, but mechanically safe cars—the kind that only needs minimum insurance coverage. (Prepare yourself—every child will probably have a fender bender. Better to ding up the old car than the newer one.) You may want to consider requiring your teenager to pay for all or some of the gas, insurance, and maintenance expenses. At the same time, we talked to each child about penalties for irresponsible behavior:

  • If a child gets a ticket, he will pay for the ticket and any increase in insurance charges that result. (In our family we have paid for insurance; other parents may ask the child to pay some or all of the premium. If you have a son, get ready to put a second mortgage on the house!) If a child gets multiple tickets, in addition to fines and penalties from the state, he loses driving privileges at home.
  • If a child ever drinks and drives, the car will be taken away completely—and that’s just for starters.
  • If a child does not maintain a B average in high school and college, she will pay the difference in the higher insurance premium.
  • If we ever hear from a neighbor or friend that a child has been seen driving recklessly, a loss in driving privileges will result.

The good news about having a new driver in the house is that another significant mile marker has been passed in your parenting journey. And it sure is nice to not have to spend quite so much time behind the wheel of the family taxi.

Adapted from Parenting Today’s Adolescent: Helping Your Child Avoid the Traps of the Preteen and Teen Years. Copyright 1998 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.