Before You Hand Over the Keys: Teaching Your Teen to Drive

By Adam Eisenson*

As every parent’s stomach knows, teen drivers are very much at risk. In our
neck of the woods, it seems like every high school student attends at least one classmate’s car-related funeral.

In fact, car accidents are the #1 killer of our children. Nationwide,
there were 5,400 such funerals in 1993. Another 519,000 teens sustained
injuries … some quite serious.

Over 40% of drivers get their first traffic citation, or are involved
in an accident during their first year of driving. Yet most Driver’s
Ed courses are way underfunded, and teens rarely get the 25 to 45
hours of behind-the-wheel training that experts recommend.

Chances are, you learned to drive from your parents … not from trained
instructors. Now it’s your turn. (Some things never seem to change.)
Will you have the patience and skill for the process?

What’s a parent to do?

Our research on training teens to be safe drivers, turned up little
of value either in print or on video. But we persevered, and have
compiled these life saving tips:

1. Monkey see, monkey do. The best teaching has always been
and always will be by example. After years of watching you violate
every rule of the road, why should your child take your “safety”
instructions seriously?

If your kids have been observing a careful, considerate driver, they’re
ahead of the game. If not, it’s time to get your own act together
… before they develop your bad habits.

2. There’s one! Point out drivers who are tailgating, changing
lanes without signaling, losing their cool, slamming on the brakes,
and so on. Make sure to also accentuate the positive … drivers who
know what they’re doing. Make a game out of spotting the good, the
bad, and the idiots.

3. Space — the fatal frontier. Teens are three times as
likely as adults to be involved in rear-end collisions. Therefore,
it’s vital that your child tune in to the “safety zone” between
cars — and how that distance should vary with speed and weather.
Current thinking is that you should allow 3 seconds between yourself
and the car you’re following. When that car passes a marker … perhaps
a sign or utility pole … start counting one one-thousand, two one-thousand
… . If you pass the pole before you’ve completed three one-thousand,
you’re too close. Back off!

4. Hidden dangers. New drivers need to know that blind spots
lurk on both sides of every car. A good way to teach your teens about
these invisible danger zones is to walk completely around a parked
car while your new driver tries to follow you in the mirrors. There’s
nothing like not seeing something with your own eyes, even when you know it’s there. Try it!

5. Terrain training. Explain that you have to accelerate when
climbing a hill … and really work to keep your speed steady when
heading down.

6. “But everybody’s speeding!” Studies show that most drivers exceed the speed limit. Still, discourage your young ‘un from developing a “lead foot.” Otherwise, flashing lights will almost certainly appear … maybe on an ambulance. Speed kills!

7. Cover to cover. You and your teen should read your state’s
driving manual. We asked each state to send us one, and 31 responded.
While none read like Gone With the Wind, they all presented
the basics. It’ll be a good refresher and update for you, and a vital
introduction for your teen.

8. MaƱana. Before heading out for a lesson, make sure you’re both in the right frame of mind. If either of you is angry, tired, or “not in the mood,” the lesson is doomed to failure. Do it another time.

9. Start slow. Begin with practice sessions of 15 to 20 minutes.
Stop if your teen gets upset, or if you get testy. Gradually lengthen
your sessions up to an hour during the day. Don’t practice in heavy
traffic, bad weather, or at night … until you both feel “ready.”

10. “But you said to turn!” Tell your teen where to do something before you say what to do. For example, say “When you get to the next corner, turn right.” Or else a nervous new driver might turn immediately.

Speaking of “right,” take it out of your vocabulary except for turns. Use the word “correct,” instead, so there’s no confusion about when you mean “go right.” Watch how you use the word “stop,” too. Unless it’s a dire emergency, try saying “bring the car to a stop,” rather than “STOP!” You don’t want to panic the new driver.

Another helpful expression — and one that’s absolutely confusion-proof
— is “great job!” Say it often.

11. Join the Kissinger school of driving … watch how you say things. “I’d feel better if you’d give that car in front of you a little more room,” will almost certainly be better received than “How many times do I have to tell you to stop tailgating? You’re gonna get us killed!”

12. Surprise! Train teens to watch out for drivers exiting directly
into traffic from a parked car — and for cars pulling out suddenly.
Teach them the clues: lit brake and reverse lights or turn signals,
smoke coming out of exhaust pipes, and/or someone in the driver’s

Two other likely surprises are pedestrians — especially children
— and animals darting into the road. It only takes a fraction
of a second to end a life.

13. Head straight to turn left.Teens are five times as likely
as their elders to get into left-turn accidents. So it’s especially
important that young drivers be wary of the left, behind the wheel
at least. Teach yours to stop or slow down (as required), look all
ways carefully, and keep the wheels straight, until it’s safe
to go — otherwise a tap from behind could push the car into oncoming

14. Play 20 questions. Once your teen has the basics down pat,
ask questions about what’s going on around you. For example, without
looking in the rear-view mirror, can your child describe the car behind
you? On your left? Does your teen know how fast s/he’s driving, or
how much gas is left in the tank? Would you?

15. On the night before … put your teen through a simulated
driving test. Can you remember yours? I remember all 3 of mine! Now’s
your chance to be as tough, gruff, and directive as you want.

16. Go over it again and again. I know they’ve heard it before
but it bears repeating: drivers aged 16 to 19 who’ve had just 1 or
2 drinks are seven times more likely to be killed than sober drivers
of any age. At 3 to 4 drinks, they’re 40 times more likely to be killed.

Example really counts here. If you’re “perfectly fine” after
a few drinks (you’re not!), your child will incorrectly believe the
same. Work out strategies together for dealing with situations that
involve drinking.

At a minimum, let your child know that you’ll play chauffeur at any hour — no questions asked. And make sure they’ll reciprocate, by coming to where you’ve been partying — anytime you call — to safely drive you home!

17. Listen to the new driver. Once they have their licenses, young drivers are perfectly happy to tell you everything you’re doing wrong. Listen to them, keep discussing defensive driving, and remember all the mistakes you made soon after pocketing your license. The life you save may be mine … or your own.

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