A Parents Guide to Teen Driving

Teen Driver - Keys in Hand
Ibrahim Kasem, Flickr.com

Teaching a teenager to drive can be a terrifying prospect for any parent. It’s going to happen someday, so you might as well approach it intelligently. If there’s one rule of the road worth prioritizing – and we believe there is one – it’s “Anticipate.” Be sure your teen is always a step ahead, knowing, among other things, how weather affects road conditions, how to drive defensively around erratic drivers, and how turns in the road will affect the vehicle’s handling. And before we get into the less-obvious rules of the road, don’t even think about moving out of ‘park’ before you buckle up. The CDC indicates that “Seat belts reduce serious crash-related injuries and deaths by about 50 percent,” so protect yourself and your precious cargo before you go.

Here are some tips on how to make it through the teen driving-lesson nightmare without losing your sanity… and without driving your teen crazy.

Take a Chill Pill

Before you pop a Xanax, we don’t mean it literally. However, you should put yourself in the right frame of mind before climbing into the passenger’s seat. If it helps, choose a certain day of the week you know you’ll be more conducive to delivering patient instructions. Approaching this task after a particularly tough workday or a stressful situation could make your instructions sound more like nagging, so be sure you’re in the right frame of mind before hopping in the passenger seat.

Turn off your cell phone to eliminate all outside distraction, and ask your teen to do the same. According to Distraction.gov, “At any given moment during daylight hours, over 660,000 vehicles are being driven by someone using a hand-held cell phone.” To put that in context, the same web site has another disturbing fact: “Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field, blindfolded.” Thanks, but no thanks.

Go Nice and Easy

Some people believe the best way to teach someone to swim is to throw them into the deep end and let them fend for themselves. This kind of approach is not recommended for administering swimming lessons or driving lessons. Both are recipes for disaster. Start out nice and easy by giving your teen time behind the wheel in small increments. Fifteen to 20 minutes is a good start. Once they’ve got that down, you can make gradual increases in the amount of hands-on instruction time.

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Map Your Route

It’s always a good idea to find an empty parking lot in which to coach your teen through his or her first tentative steps as a driver. Work on the basics to begin with, like acceleration, braking and steering. If you’re feeling adventurous, our friends at Popular Mechanics have some good tips on this – see #6-11 for some “vacant-lot lesson” specifics.

As your teen’s ability advances, ease into the driving experience by driving through neighborhood streets and eventually into areas with slightly more traffic and increasingly narrower roads. Map a route in advance and pick a time of day when you know the traffic in that area won’t be too dense. By taking this step approach, you’ll avoid hazardous conditions until you’re sure your teenager will be able to capably handle the wheel.

Don’t just say you’ll expose your teen to a variety of driving routes and weather conditions – do it. According to AAA, “Nearly half of parents reported they wanted their teens to get ‘a lot of practice,’ when asked about their plans for their teens’ driving. Yet, only about one in four parents mentioned practicing under a variety of situations or conditions, such as in bad weather, heavy traffic, or on unfamiliar roads.”

Show and Tell

Learning how to drive a car safely involves a lot more than just knowing the basic mechanics. Being a good observer of the road, and of surrounding drivers, is critical. Focus on this with your teenage driver – but do so in a manner that isn’t lecturing or derogatory. Make an activity of it by quizzing them on certain things that will serve to raise their awareness. Some ideas for questions to ask include:

  • What’s the speed limit on this road and why?
    Fact, according to the California DMV’s Driver Handbook: “High speed increases your stopping distance. The faster you go, the less time you have to avoid a hazard or collision. The force of a 60 mph crash is not just twice as great as a 30 mph crash; it’s four times as great!”
  • Are there any cars in your blind spot?
    Before hitting the road, adjust mirrors to ensure optimal visibility; here, the New York Times explains how. In addition, a quick way for your teen to check for blind spots is for the driver to look above his or her left shoulder before a lane change. Make that a habit and you’ll have us to thank for your teen not merging into a behemoth at highway speeds.
  • What was the last street sign you saw?
    New drivers have lots to memorize – mirror placement, rules and signage. Before your teen is of driving age, point out signs along the way, what they mean and why they’re important.
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Accentuate the Positive

Teaching anyone to drive – especially a teenager with no experience – requires a measured approach. Naturally, there may be times where you’ll have to remind your teen they’re doing something wrong. But explain why, and if you don’t know the answer, find it online. Also, don’t forget to let them know when they’ve done something right. Give praise when it’s due, but don’t overdo it. The last thing you want to do is come off patronizing as your teen enjoys this monumental rite of passage.

Maintain Open Communication

Once your teen has earned a license, you aren’t off the hook. It’s important to stay informed of your teen’s plans, driving routes, and who’s traveling in the car; with teen drivers, “safety in numbers” doesn’t apply. According to NHSTA, “passengers substantially increase the risk of crashes for young, novice drivers. This increased risk may result from distractions that young passengers create for drivers.” Also, “the presence of passengers may increase the likelihood of teenage drivers engaging in explicitly risky behaviors, for example, by actively encouraging drivers to take risks.” Maintaining open communication may appear over-protective, but your teen’s safety is important, above all else.