Imagine this scenario: Your teenage daughter casually announces that she and her best friends are taking off on a weeklong road trip for Spring Break. You listen in horror as she waxes euphoric about “the freedom of the open road.” She’s dreaming of a road trip movie: an exciting odyssey with a cast of new friends, a thrillingly handsome leading man and no parents in sight. You, on the other hand, are thinking Freddy Krueger. You can’t shake the idea that your lovely daughter will never return home.
Stop right there, and remember this truth about road trips: Many are dreamed, but few are taken. This is true not only for teenagers lusting for independence, but for would-be adventurers of all ages. Who hasn’t had the delicious idea of jumping behind the wheel and leaving all cares behind?
So before you panic, wait and see if your teen’s road trip is just a passing fantasy. If, instead, it seems that a genuine, tire-on-pavement plan is emerging, consider the following strategies to preserve your teenager’s safety — and your own sanity.
Get past the fear. In my work as moderator of The Great American RoadTrip Forum, I have frequent dialogues with parents who are terrified by the prospect of their kids hitting the road. Know that your child is probably frightened, too, though she may choose not to recognize that giddy sensation as fear. To help transform fear into useful energy for both of you, try the “always ask, never tell” technique: Instead of launching a salvo of rules and demands, which would only create an instant confrontation, ask some questions. For example:
Where would you go? Who would you go with? Whose car would you take? Where would you stop? How would you pay for the trip? When would you be back? What are your goals for this adventure?
Planning a road trip is a lot more work than showing up for a school field trip, and this realization may soon diminish its appeal. It will certainly bring the trip down from the stratosphere to a more realistic plane.
Follow a progression plan. Like any other skill, independent traveling is best learned in steps. Teenagers who have been given independence incrementally are far more capable of taking a safe road trip than those who have never traveled without their parents or been responsible for any travel planning.
A reasonable progression plan works something like this. First the parents take a few short overnight trips without the teenager to see whether she can handle herself without adult supervision. Next, the parent and child take a daytrip together and the child does most or all of the driving. The parent can observe whether the driving skills of the child are up to the task of an extended trip. (It can be useful to have any other would-be drivers participate in this driving exercise as well.) In the next stage, the teen goes on solo overnight trips to visit family or friends who live out of town. After that, she takes a couple of weekend trips. From there, it’s fairly easy to progress to longer excursions with a mutual comfort level.
As part of any progression plan, make sure your teen learns basic road trip skills like how to read maps, how to make motel reservations and how to call for roadside assistance. When you take family road trips, make sure your teen helps plan the itinerary and helps decide what sights to see. Then, when he sets out on his first trip without you, have him take the Road Trip Compatibility Quiz and encourage him to discuss the results with his would-be travel mates.
Set up communications. I generally recommend that you call your road tripper at a specified time each day. Alternatively, you can arrange for your teen to call home every time she fills up the gas tank (on most road trips this happens at least once a day).
Cell phones make keeping in touch easy in some ways, but frustratingly problematic in others. It’s all too easy for a kid to ignore your ring tone when he doesn’t want to report on his day’s escapades. For this reason, it’s wise to obtain the cell numbers of some of your teenager’s friends - i.e., kids who are not on the trip. If you think you’re being ignored and you really must get in touch with your teen, have one of these friends place the call. Unless your kid really is incommunicado, this technique should work — at least once!
Put safety first. Make sure that your teen has access to the American Automobile Association (AAA) or another emergency roadside service and that he knows how to obtain the services. Make sure that everyone on the trip accepts and uses the buddy system and that no one goes anywhere alone without at least one other person knowing his plans.
Introduce the idea of “safety notes.” Safety notes are two or three sentences written on an index card or in a designated notebook that briefly state the group’s plans whenever they are away from the car for a couple of hours or more. For example, “Joe, Dean and I are meeting Jill and Larry at the Handlebar restaurant and will be back at 10 p.m. Jill: 213-555-4378, Larry: 818-555-5675.” The notes are left in the glove compartment of the car. In the unlikely event that the road trippers do not return to the car, law enforcement officers have an idea where to start looking for them. I recommend that everyone — whether they are 17 or 99 — leave a safety note when leaving a vehicle to go hiking or biking in the backcountry.
Decide where to stay. Since the cost of any trip is always a concern, I generally recommend that roadtrippers of all ages plan a mix of motel rooms and camping for their overnight stays. But I would also suggest that you encourage young road trippers to have motel reservations for at least a couple of nights so you can make sure they are progressing as planned and that everyone is getting along. If they are under 18 years old, it can be challenging for them to rent a motel room. These younger travelers may fare better by staying with relatives or friends.
Brush up on the law. Just about every state and province in North America has rules and regulations that affect young travelers. Some municipalities enforce stringent curfews and have varying definitions of the term “responsible adult.” Nearly every state prohibits underage individuals from driving other youngsters during certain times of the day and night. Further, many states are adopting laws that impose penalties on parents if their children are involved in vehicular accidents. It is critical that parents be aware of the differences in such rules when their children cross state lines. Since most children are protected under their parents’ car insurance umbrella policies, it is important to ensure that these policies will be enforceable if an accident occurs when the parent is not on the trip.
Check your equipment. Make sure the road trip vehicle has been checked out by a mechanic and that it is equipped with a full complement of road trip essentials. These items can be placed in plastic containers and labeled as “Sanitary Supplies,” “Food,” “Safety Supplies,” “Automotive Tools,” etc., to make them easy to find in a hurry.
Also ensure that there are current and accurate maps in the vehicle, and consider having the kids take a CB radio and GPS receiver. Make sure the road trippers know how to change a tire and make them do it in the driveway before they leave. Ditto for tire chains if snowy weather is possible.
Finally, consider whether to equip the vehicle with an embedded GPS device that would allow you to track the vehicle’s position in real time. I have field tested some of these units, and they are remarkably accurate. But if you feel you must monitor your child in this way, it may be better to veto the trip in the first place. Knowing exactly where your teenager is at every moment does not actually promote safety, and it can easily heighten suspicion and increase anxiety. In my opinion, it’s better to wait until a child is ready for independent travel and then keep in touch by traditional methods.
When I was a kid, I thought that every other kid took road trips all the time. As an adult, I know that the actual incidence of teenage road trips is very low. While parental anxiety is understandable, preparing your teenagers to take independent road trips can be a wonderful and memorable part of their journey to independence.
Mark Sedenquist is the publisher of , a Web site providing expert planning, advice and suggested itineraries for road trips. He's spent 30 years and a half-million miles on the road in North America. or visit his .