My introduction into the world of teaching teens to drive was purely fateful. I first attended a driver improvement class with my then-17-year-old son. He had a heavy foot at first, until reality set in, and the high cost of fines and ticketing hit home. At that time, when a child under eighteen received a ticket and was required by the DMV or the courts to take the 8-hour driving class, a parent or guardian had to accompany the child in the classroom. That class was geared toward driving defensively. As a parent tagging along, I was surprised by the class and found it very informative.
A few years later, I felt a little insecure about teaching my next son to drive. He seemed to be doing fine and had successfully completed the online classroom training, but I wanted a professional to check him out to be sure. Turns out, my son was so well-prepared that the professional driving school he had attended ended up hiring me to teach its students – after I completed the state-required coursework for driving instruction.
Nine years later, I have discovered working with teens and teaching them to drive is my passion. For a teen, getting a driver’s license is such an exciting time, and I get to be a small part of this transition from childhood to adulthood. In addition, I can finish all the lectures I had stored up for my own children!
With that experience of instructing teens and having the benefit of working with eleven or so other experienced instructors, I offer parents these strategies that might help relieve some of the anxiety that comes from driving with your teen.
1. Parent Prep
The hardest part of teaching someone else to do what you already know how to do – and have done for many years – is breaking the procedure down into small steps, right? The DMV thought of this and provided parents and teens with a resource called the 45-Hour Parent-Teen Driving Guide. This useful guide is available from the DMV, and will be given to your teen when she passes the test and receives a learner’s permit. There is also a handy log in the back to tear out and put in your car so your teen can record the forty-five required driving hours (fifteen at night). You can also review it online at dmv.virginia.gov, but the hard copy of the log I mentioned is a very useful tool, so do pick up the real thing, too.
2. Baby Steps
Start with the basics. If you think about it, learning to drive is a lot like learning a sport: The fundamentals are important. Don’t be embarrassed to drive around and around the neighborhood working on right turns, left turns, stops, and starts. From there, go to more difficult tasks, such as lane changes and u-turns. Teach your teen to use the SMOG lane-changing method: signal, check your mirrors, over-the-shoulder glance, and go. Be sure to maintain speed or speed up during a lane change. These techniques will serve your teen well in different traffic situations, at different speeds, and in different environments. You change lanes the same way on the expressway as you would in a commercial area.
Always help your teen master the basics before presenting him with a more challenging environment. One evening, my husband put our son in the driver‘s seat of his truck and took off for the highway before I could say anything! I didn’t get a chance to mention to Dad that our son had not yet driven a truck or been on the highway. They made it back safely, but my husband got out of the truck wide-eyed and visibly shaken.
3. Eyes on the Road
Help your teen learn to track the vehicle in a straight line. Teach your teen to look ahead twenty seconds (or about 1/4 mile) and not directly in front of the vehicle. This practice not only develops important scanning skills, it provides perspective so the teen can keep the vehicle within the lane more easily. If your teen tends to hug one side of the lane or the other, it is because he is not looking far enough ahead. Just as you cannot walk in a straight line looking down at your feet or up at the sky, you must look straight ahead and into the distance to keep your vehicle within your lane.
I’ll never forget the time one of my sons scared me so badly that I couldn’t get any words out! I was just gasping for air as I tried to tell him the traffic was stopped ahead and we barreled toward the line of stopped vehicles. He stopped the car in time and looked at me with that “What?” expression on his face. Teach your teen to verbalize to you what he sees. That is the real issue, after all. You have no idea what he sees, or if he is aware of stopped traffic ahead, children on the side of the road, pedestrians in the street, or other potential problems, unless he tells you.
5. Record Everything
The DMV requires your teen to log forty-five hours behind the wheel, fifteen of which must happen at night. This seems like a lot, but trust me, important research goes into these numbers. Be sure to log these hours for your own information, as well as for the driving school. At the end of the forty-five hours, your teen will have experience and the kind of confidence that doesn’t happen with fewer hours, no matter how bright your teen is. Today, when I drive with a teen behind the wheel, I can usually estimate – with a good amount of accuracy – how many hours she has driven with a parent or guardian. The telltale signs are mostly in the eye movements and confidence. Driving is mental. Experience allows your teen to deal with enough intersections, curvy roads, bad weather, and night driving to learn how to respond and gain confidence.
A teen who seems to be a good driver because he handles the car well still needs hours of experience to keep from making mental errors that can end disastrously. If he never attended practice, you would not expect your teen to know how to react in a critical situation on the baseball diamond just because he throws the ball well in the backyard. Don’t expect him to know how to handle traffic situations without a lot of supervised traffic experience. It takes a new driver up to five years to be considered an experienced driver.
6. Instill Confidence
One last thing: It is best for your teen to drive with the calmest parent. I am convinced teen drivers can be some of the best drivers on the road. Their hand and eye coordination is great (one positive side effect of video games), their vision is good, and they think fast. Confidence, along with training, is the key to good driving. Fear can inhibit this. Try not to make your teen nervous. From my perspective as a driving instructor, the most difficult teens to teach are the ones who are afraid to drive and lack confidence. They approach driving with a nervous, defeated attitude and make a lot of mental mistakes.
I took flying lessons once. During my last lesson, I took off, stalled in the air, restarted the engine with precision and confidence, and landed so smoothly that it was as if I had floated through the whole lesson. It was so perfect, I thought the instructor beside me was handling the controls. At the end of the flight, I looked over at him and said something like, “That was awesome, thanks!” It was only then that he told me he had never touched the controls. “I just make sure the air conditioner is pointed to this side of my face so that you cannot see the perspiration. You are ready to solo now.” Isn’t that what we are aiming for – for our teen to drive solo? Confidence can be everything! Try your best to instill it with calmness and a good, healthy awareness of risk.