How to Talk to Your Kids About Road Safety, According to the Department of Transportation

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg spoke exclusively with about the Department of Transportation’s first-ever National Roadway Safety Strategy and how parents can talk to kids of all ages about staying safe on the roads.

Transport Chief Pete Buttigieg
Photo: Getty Images

As a parent, you bear your child's safety in mind every time you get behind the wheel or walk with them out in public. Once they learn how to drive as teens, you hope they'll navigate the roads with caution. But no matter how vigilant any driver, pedestrian, or cyclist is, the fact is that far too many deaths—almost 95 percent of the nation's transportation-related fatalities—occur on America's streets, roads, and highways, and they're skyrocketing, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. More than 38,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, and the stats only worsened in 2021.

That's why today, the department is releasing the first-ever National Roadway Safety Strategy, a plan that looks at road design, posted speeds, new car standards, and more to set a long-term goal of zero roadway deaths.

The ambitious initiative presents a valuable opportunity for families to reflect on roadway safety. spoke with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg about the urgency of the matter and what parents can impart to children of all ages.

Why is now the time to take ambitious new steps toward making our roads safer?

"For some period of time, the U.S. saw a decline in roadway deaths, but in recent years, they've been on the rise again, and they're also just fundamentally too high. About 38,000 people died last year. Now, if 38,000 people died in restaurants, parents wouldn't take their kids to restaurants. If 38,000 people died on airplanes, parents wouldn't take their kids on airplanes. And yet, we're so used to it, that we don't even think that much about the fact that we take and send our kids onto American roadways. That's something that has to change. We have to decide that this is not an acceptable level of danger, and we have to take the steps that are going to change it.

"Some of those are policy steps that state highway departments and cities need to take. Some of them are steps that we need to take as a department—like the five-star crash ratings or new car assessment program—but also many of these are steps that individuals can take."

How can parents coach even young children to be safe pedestrians and cyclists?

"Kids need to know to be alert, to look around. They need to understand how stop signs and stoplights work, but also to be ready for a car that isn't doing the right thing. Kids on bicycles need to know about bicycle safety, they need to know about helmets, they need to know about road markings. And the truth is, it's as much about show as it is about tell. Kids are going to notice what you do more than they're going to remember what you said. It's very important to remember the example we set and how that gets very quickly imitated and remembered—even unconsciously imprinted on kids."

What about teaching children to consider other people's safety while out on the roads?

"Kids need to look out for each other and try never to be alone. One idea that I think has caught on recently in terms of community is the idea of a walking school bus—making sure some combination of parents or classmates accompany kids as they make their way toward a school.

"The best way to talk to kids about this is in a way that's empowering—to let them know that they can make a difference for people around them. Whether that's being a good driver, being good passenger, finding a comfortable way to say, 'Hey, forgot your seatbelt?' or 'Can I help you find a helmet?' And, certainly when on foot, making sure that that everybody understands that they have a responsibility to look out for each other. There's no minimum age for that."

We know that risky behind-the-wheel behaviors are especially common among teens. What's more, traffic crashes are a leading cause of death for teenagers in America. How can parents implore their teens to be more cautious behind the wheel?

"Experienced drivers are safer drivers. But nobody, by definition, is experienced when they're first learning to drive. So it's really important for parents to make sure that teens know to be conservative, to remember all those safety basics that might be a deeply ingrained habit for someone who's been driving for years. We also need to make sure that nobody gets the sense that the way to impress each other is anything unsafe—either as a pedestrian, a bicycle rider, or certainly as a driver or passenger."

A 2019 Youth Risk Behavior survey of high school students found that 43 percent did not always wear a seatbelt and 39 percent reported texting/emailing while driving. What can parents say to teens about these risks specifically?

"When it comes to seatbelts, it's important for teens to understand just how big of a difference it makes. It is a literal life and death decision, and it's easy. But for it to really be automatic means building that habit from day one. Parents have to remember that they are telling their kids what to do silently, every time they do the right thing. And that's by far the most powerful influence.

"Parents and teens alike need to know first of all, every car on the market absolutely requires the driver to be behind the wheel and paying attention. If the car is moving, your eyes need to be on the road, no matter what. Parents can also learn about a lot of safety features that are appearing on smartphones that could disable it while it's in motion or set 'Do Not Disturb' periods or message back to somebody who messages you saying, 'I can't get back to you right now. I'm on the road.' And again, this is something parents should probably themselves be using as a way to make that a norm versus just trying to get their kids to understand it without embracing that idea themselves. We can also remind kids who are very connected that not every message needs to be replied to instantly, that not every post needs to be engaged with the instant that it goes out. That it's OK to just give it a minute. And that's especially important when that's not just a matter of convenience but a life and death decision."

Fatalities are also disproportionately impacting people who are Black, American Indian, and live in rural communities. How do we as a country address this particular crisis?

"It is shocking to see how underserved communities, communities of color, and low income communities have much worse outcomes when it comes to roadway deaths. These injuries and crashes affect every community, of course, but it is disproportionate. We can't put it on parents or kids to solve; we have to make some policy choices as a country. One thing that my department will be doing is paying attention to where our resources go. We have billions of dollars in new funding for safety thanks to the President's bipartisan law. And we're absolutely going to be paying attention to how it can go to the places that need it most."

Although behavioral factors are a piece of the puzzle, what should parents know about the Department of Transportation's role in achieving the zero roadway deaths goal?

"My department's really trying to drive a safer overall picture in terms of how a neighborhood or streetscape or a sidewalk is designed, who it affects, how fast cars move. That, in turn, can reduce the number of dangerous accidents. We know that humans make mistakes. We just need to make sure that those mistakes aren't as frequent, and when they happen, they're not as deadly."

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