Know the rules of the road for teen drivers

Getting a driver’s license at age 16 is a rite of passage that symbolizes freedom for teenagers. But before your teen can experience driving independently, he or she must spend a significant investment of time in a classroom and behind the wheel to prepare for the safest driving experience possible.

Safety advocates say New Hampshire’s graduated driver licensing law helps ensure that teens under 18 learn how to drive safely before they are granted full privileges on the road.

According to New Hampshire Driving Towards Zero, speed and inexperience of novice drivers are the major causes of fatal crashes among teens as reported by the New Hampshire Division of Motor Vehicle’s Division of Motor Vehicle Fatal Accident Reporting System. Although drivers age 16 and 17 held about 2% of the total number of driver’s licenses in the state in 2015, these same drivers were involved in 15% of total crashes.

Factor in additional distractions that teens find difficult to resist — friends, music and cell phones — and the risk multiplies.

Up to 60% of all teen crashes are due to distracted driving, said Pat Moody, manager of public affairs for AAA Northern New England, who also oversees AAA driver education in the states of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. The most common forms of distraction leading up to a crash by a teen driver include interacting with passengers (15%) and using cell phones (12%), he said, citing a recent AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study.

“For each additional person in the vehicle, the distraction increases. If you add someone older than 25, the risk deceases by 32%. That’s why I tell parents that even after your child gets their license, you should get back in the car with them as often as possible,” Moody said.

Before your son or daughter reaches the age when he or she is ready to start learning how to drive, it’s important to understand the facts related to teen driving and licensure in New Hampshire.

Fact: In New Hampshire, teens can start driving at 15 1/2 years old and do not need a learner’s permit.

Yes, it is true that the DMV allows teens to practice driving early, even before they can begin attending driving school. (The earliest a child can attend driving school is age 15 years and 9 months; he or she must be 16 when they test at the DMV.)

  • An unlicensed 15½-year old must be accompanied by a parent or guardian or responsible adult who is at least 25 years old and holds a valid license.
  • The adult in the car with the unlicensed teen is liable
    for any motor vehicle violation committed by the unlicensed driver.
  • Teens do not need to pass a written exam before they start practicing driving.

Fact: Successful completion of a driver education course is required for any driver under 18.

If your child wants to get their license before turning 18, the State of New Hampshire has specific requirements he or she needs to complete before applying for a license.

  • To first earn a driver’s education certificate, teens must complete a course of study that includes 30 hours of classroom, 10 hours of driving, and six hours of observation, according to the NH DMV website.
  • Although there more than 60 driving schools to choose from throughout the state, many of which are listed on the NH DMV website, some report being full months in advance. For example, AAA’s driving school in Merrimack is booked up until winter 2020. 1st Gear Driving School in Amherst is also booked this fall and is registering for winter classes, according to its website.
  • Driving schools take about six weeks to complete, depending upon the school and your teen’s course schedule. But no driving school can compress driving instruction into a few blocks. By law, teens are only allowed to drive in driver’s ed classes for up to two hours in a week, but no more than one hour a day until hours seven and eight of instruction. For the first six hours of driving instruction, teens drive for one hour and observe for one hour each driving session. In total, driver’s ed provides students with eight driving sessions. This is why many driving school instructors urge parents to practice driving with their teen as much as possible before a teen begins school.
  • Parents can expect to pay $600 to $700 to cover the cost of driving school. Some schools will pick teens up at their high schools or offer drop off and pick up from home; whereas others do not.
  • How do you know which driving school is the best fit for your teen? Ask around. Some things to look for include years of experience, instructors’ experience and rapport with teenagers, and patience with inexperienced drivers.

On its Keys2Drive website, AAA also encourages parents call and visit driving schools to see if they use current training materials, hire professional instructors, and maintain clean classrooms and safe vehicles. A good driving school should also facilitate parental involvement and have reasonable student-instructor ratios, according to AAA.

AAA’s License to Learn driving school curriculum is based on research and crash data. It doesn’t pick up and drop off teens from home or school. Instead the road portion of its 10 driving classes follows routes that expose students to different road conditions that meet particular objectives, Moody said.

John Pacheco of Chico’s Driving Center in Goffstown has been in the driver’s education business for more than 20 years and said he has never had to advertise his classes. Pacheco said the best compliment he hears is when a parent tells him years after their child has received their license, they still haven’t experienced a crash or a moving violation. “To me it’s a badge of honor. It means I got through to them,” he said.

Jon Benson of Benson’s Driving School has grown his business from one center to 10 centers in southeastern New Hampshire over a period of 15 years. During his first year, he taught 149 students, and last year that number swelled to 2,000 students. His instructors include family members, but also former police officers and teachers — people who enjoy working with kids, he said.

Fact: Teens can’t take the classroom portion of their driver’s education course online…yet.

  • While there are online providers of driver’s education programs, the state so far has not allowed online education to supplant classroom education. A bill that passed in June 2019 (Senate Bill 40), opens the possibility that it could be allowed in the future. The bill would allow for up to 15 hours of classroom education to be completed online. It further states that “the commissioner may enter into contracts for assistance in developing, assisting, and conducting an online driver education course.”
  • Benson said he is not in favor of the online classroom option as it would be hard to determine whether students could rely on others to guide them through that portion of the curriculum. During his driver’s education classes, Benson said he’s able to use his own life experiences to relate to students in a way that they can remember and understand certain driving situations.
  • However, online driver’s education is a good option for today’s busy teens who could benefit from the flexibility online courses provide, but only if the online curriculum is research-based and of high quality, Moody said. (AAA has advocated for this bill.)

Fact: Your teen will need to document at least 40 hours of driving experience; 10 hours at night.

  • Your teen’s 40 hours of driving time must be certified by a parent or guardian on the Certification of Additional Supervised Driving (Log Sheet) prior to applying for a license, according to the NH DMV website.
  • It’s imperative that parents support their children in learning how to drive. They can’t just sign the paper so that their teen will get his or her license quicker; in fact, doing so when a teen hasn’t really completed the hours violates RSA 641:3 (Unsworn Falsification), Pacheco said.
  • Moody agrees that parental involvement and teen driving practice is critical to passing the road test and being prepared for any traffic condition your teen may face. AAA recommends 100 hours of practice time before a teen takes his or her road test. (Maine now requires 70 hours of supervised driving.)
  • Benson said driver’s education should focus on teaching teens correct habits and emphasize skills that a parent may not normally teach (for example, parking, merging onto highways, or driving in the city). If a teen has enough driving practice before he or she begins driver’s education, instructors can work on those skills rather than spending the bulk of road time teaching students the basics, he said.
  • Although state law does not determine where teens should drive or stipulate that they drive in certain weather conditions, experts say that they should be exposed to as many different environments as possible to gain experience and learn how to drive safely. Practice on rural roads, highways, city traffic and even during snowstorms helps them gain confidence, Moody said.
  • The only person who can drive with your teen is his or her parent or legal guardian — and that person is liable for any moving violations. Benson said he understands parents are busy and some of them are frightened to sit in the passenger seat alongside their new driver. He suggests parents and teens start off slowly in low-risk situations.

“Start off in a parking lot or a seldom-used development,” he said. “The more they drive, the more experience they will get.”

Fact: Teens don’t have to schedule their knowledge or vision tests, but do have to schedule road tests.

  • To take a knowledge or vision test, the NH DMV asks that you arrive at an office no later than 3:30 p.m.
  • To pass the vision test, you must be able to read the 20/40 vision line with both eyes. Teens who wear contact lenses or glasses will be required to wear them while driving.
  • To pass the knowledge test, teens need to score a passing grade of 80% on a computer-based touch-screen test with a time limit. (If you fail the test, you can retake it in 10 days).
  • The average road test lasts 15-20 minutes and requires you to provide a vehicle for your teen to drive. The test measures skills such as driving in traffic, driving habits, knowledge of traffic signs and the rules of the road, and how a teen physically, mentally and emotionally handles the stress of driving. Teens who fail the road test must wait 10 days before they can re-test. (If you miss your road test with less than 24 hours’ notice, you must wait 30 days to re-test.)

Fact: Teens don’t get full driving privileges right away, and parents have some oversight.

  • Until they turn 18, teens operate under a youth operator license and may not drive between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.
  • During the first six months of licensure, teens are prohibited from driving with more than one passenger under age 25 (family members exempt) unless accompanied by a licensed responsible adult who is at least 25.
  • Parents may revoke the license of a teen under age 18 for any reason.

Fact: Even after receiving a license, parents need to set expectations and remain involved

While teens may be in a hurry to get their licenses, parents need take an active role in helping them understand the responsibility a driver’s license carries. Setting rules before your teen takes the wheel can help set clear expectations.

  • AAA offers a Parent-Teen Driving Agreement on its website that helps parents set the rules for the family vehicle and teens agree on the consequences, should those rules be broken, Moody said. The agreement clearly spells out the road conditions a teen is permitted to drive in, the consequences if a teen arrives late or fails to use a seatbelt, and even how car maintenance and expenses should be shared between parents and teens.

“It has been proven that the more a parent is involved, the safer the teen will be. More parental involvement equals less driving risk,” he said.

  • In his classes, Pacheco said he explains to his students that a license is a privilege you can lose at any time. In New Hampshire, a youth operator can get one moving violation and lose his or her license for 20 days. And if caught driving while intoxicated, teens can be charged with a Class B criminal misdemeanor. (Drivers under 21 with a BAC of . 02% or more typically face an administrative license suspension of six months.)

“I tell kids, if that happens, you might as well forget about [federal] student loans — you aren’t going to get one. And if you need to fill out a job application and you are convicted of a crime, you must include that,” he said.

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks has worked as a journalist and in marketing roles throughout the Granite State.


Categories: Teens