Seatbelts are buckled, mirrors are adjusted, and the engine is purring. As your car backs slowly down the driveway you can't help but look into the side mirror to make sure the tires aren't on the lawn. You start down the street, white knuckles firmly clamped around the door handle and feet bearing down on imaginary brakes.
It's your son's first time behind the wheel and you're riding shotgun — who knows which one of you is more nervous?
Learning to drive can be nerve-wracking for teens and parents. It's likely to be your first experience putting your safety and auto investment in your teen's hands. And since you know all the risks of the road, this can be pretty scary. But parents play an important role in helping teens practice their driving skills and develop confidence behind the wheel.
To help prepare for this critical time in your teen's life, you might want to refresh your own driving knowledge by taking a defensive driving course (many of these can be completed online). You'd be surprised to see how much has changed since you learned to drive. You also can look into resources like the "Teaching Your Teens to Drive" handbook and DVD from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Practice, Practice, Practice
When it comes to driving, experience is an important teacher. The more time young drivers spend building a variety of skills in different road and weather conditions, the more calm and confident they will feel and the better they'll be able to react to challenging situations.
Before each practice session, plan the specific skills you want to go over. If possible, make your lessons coincide with what your teen is learning in driver's education at school. Consider your teen's temperament — and your own. If the lessons are too long, nerves might get frayed and it may be difficult to stay calm.
An empty parking lot is an ideal place for teens to:
- practice simple car control skills like turning and braking
- get a feel for how the car handles
- learn the location of some of the basic controls, like windshield wipers, defroster, and lights
- get a feel for how anti-lock brakes work in wet or slick conditions
After practicing the basics of moving in drive and reverse, try to work on these skills on quiet back roads, where there's little traffic:
- practicing an aggressive visual search (looking for potential road hazards)
- slowing down around curves
- coming to a full stop at a stop sign
- understanding the rules of a four-way stop
- keeping a safe following distance
- making a left turn on a two-way road
- keeping a constant speed when going uphill
- recognizing and understanding street signs
- navigating around pedestrians, animals, bikers, and runners
More Advanced Skills
Once teens have mastered those basic skills, they should get some practice driving on bigger, busier roads and highways. On these roads, you can help your teen practice:
- changing lanes
- merging into traffic
- maintaining a safe speed based on road conditions
- understanding the different lanes — like not going below the speed limit in the left lane
- approaching, slowing down, and stopping at traffic lights/intersections — green, yellow, and red
- making a left on a green light while yielding to opposing traffic
- using on and off ramps at appropriate speeds
It takes time for new drivers to learn how to anticipate the actions of other vehicles, sense how much speed and space certain situations require, and recognize high-risk traffic situations. These are skills that drivers develop with experience.
Explain to your teens that defensive driving means actively watching for potential problems — like expecting that other drivers might do something that will put them at great risk. For instance, when approaching a stop sign, teens should watch for other cars coming from different directions that may not stop. In traffic, encourage your teen to watch for cars that suddenly switch lanes without signaling or that pull out in front.
Once comfortable with these skills, have your teen practice driving in different conditions such as:
- Nighttime: Reduced visibility means greater risk that can lead to a collision.
- Dusk and dawn: Glare from the sun makes it difficult for drivers to see.
- Rain and snow: Practicing on slick pavement gives teens a chance to find the right speed for the conditions and helps demonstrate how traction is reduced.
- Construction/roadwork: Construction zones have many signs and congestion that are good learning points for any new driver.
After plenty of practice, give your teen a chance to drive with more passengers in the car. Begin with family members or close friends who your teen is comfortable driving with and you're comfortable coaching around.
Before your first driving session with your teen, sit down together and discuss your expectations, including the skills you'd like to practice and how long it will take.
Once the lesson begins, remember that the goal is for your teen to get comfortable, confident, and safe behind the wheel. Becoming a skilled driver takes time and experience, so it's important to be patient and:
- Provide some warm-up time. First practice in safe areas, away from other cars, with low stress and risk. Then, as you get more comfortable with one another, you'll be ready to take on bigger challenges, like the open road and the highway.
- Keep it simple. Practice skills one at a time. In basketball, a person can't learn to shoot, defend, pass, and dribble all at once, and the same goes for driving skills. Remember that it can be hard for new drivers to process multiple things at once while trying to drive — it can even be a distraction.
- Turn mistakes into lessons. When a mistake happens, have your teen pull over, if possible, so you can talk calmly about what went wrong and how to avoid repeats.
As long as you are alert and attentive while your rookie driver is at the wheel, you should be prepared to help with any situation that may arise.
Be a Resource for Your Teen
A simple tutorial about the basics of car maintenance, like changing a tire, is important for a new driver. So show your son or daughter where the spare tire, lug wrench, and other equipment is kept and how to use it.
Other emergency and maintenance necessities to go over include:
- maintaining proper air pressure in the tires
- checking the oil
- pumping and paying for gas
- jump-starting a car
Approach this training with an open mind, a positive attitude, and patience and you'll give your teen a headstart in becoming a skilled and safe driver. And who knows? You may learn something new about the road too!
Reviewed by: Kurt E. Gray, MSM
Date reviewed: July 2014