Teaching a teenager to drive has never been easy. While it can be (or you want it to be) a fun and exciting rite of passage, it can also be stressful and panic-inducing for both of you. But even in a pandemic, the roads are open and teens are on them. So if it’s time for you to help them learn how to drive, take a deep breath, center yourself (and buckle up)—and then follow these tips for the smoothest ride possible.
Prepping in advance
If your child isn’t yet of driving age, it may seem like you can put off the lessons for now. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends talking to your child about driver safety early, often, and long before they actually take hold of the wheel. Better yet—set the example for them by modeling safe driving habits yourself:
Talking is important, but action is even better. Show your kids safe driving behavior. Start by modeling good habits any time you drive them anywhere, even before they begin to drive. Make sure you, yourself, are turning off your cell phone and stowing it away, and buckling your seat belt before starting your car.
Devi Mohanty, vice president of product development for USAA, echoes that sentiment, as speeding, harsh braking, hard cornering, and phone use are the most common contributing factors in teen driving accidents.
“The way I would think about it is [reinforcing] soft skills,” Mohanty says. “Parents modeling the behavior … we want our teenagers to do will be important.”
Once they’re ready to drive—they’ve obtained their learner’s permit and are mature enough and ready for the responsibility—it’s time to introduce them to the vehicle they’ll be diving. Sure, your teen has sat in the family car a thousand times before, but that was as the passenger, not the driver. As the operator, they need to get to know the vehicle in a whole new way—so Emily Stein, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, recommends giving them a full tour.
“Walk around the car, familiarize your teen with the car, inside and out,” Stein says. “Check the tire tread, name the dashboard controls, adjust side mirrors, and find the proper seat positioning.”
Don’t rush this part; sitting and talking about where the turn signals are, how to adjust the mirrors, and letting them practice flipping the windshield wipers on and off gives both of you some time to transition into the real deal.
Okay: It’s time to hand over the keys. Choose a day with good weather—and a day when everyone is in a calm mood. A wide open space, such as a large, empty parking lot, is best for new drivers to practice starting, stopping, turning, and backing up. Continue to gradually increase the skills required in the challenges you give them, such as turning at the end of a lane or pulling into a parking space.
Once they’re comfortable with the basic operation of the car, you’ll want to head out to quiet side streets and roads with low speed limits (stick with 35 miles per hour or slower to start). State Farm suggests varying the route, though, over several sessions in order to practice these basic beginner skills:
- Turns: speed and use of signals
- Braking smoothly: gradually slowing to a stop
- Accelerating smoothly: steadily increasing to a safe speed within the posted limit
- Approaching intersections controlled by stop signs or lights
- Determining right of way
- Single-lane and multi-lane roadways (low speeds)
- Changing lanes and how to merge into traffic safely
- Maintaining appropriate speed
- Scanning for and identifying hazards
- Keeping a safe following distance
- Sharing the road with cyclists, pedestrians, and school buses
- Driving in a school zone
- Reacting to an approaching emergency vehicle
- Using turning lanes
You’ll also want to slowly introduce them to driving in varying weather conditions, during different times of the day, and in busier traffic patterns. But Very Well Family says parents should prioritize the number of practices over the amount of time per practice, at least at the beginning:
The number of times you drive with your teen is more important than the amount of time in each session. In the beginning, limit your practice time to 15 to 20 minutes at a time. As your teen’s confidence increases, you can extend practice times.
Another tactic you might try, in order to help teenagers develop the full awareness of their surroundings needed to safely operate a vehicle, is called “commentary driving.” Commentary driving, according to the Parent’s Supervised Driving Program, is a verbalization tool that can help a new driver become more alert to risks on the road and how best to avoid them. Similar to a sports commentator, your new driver can talk through their observations, actions, and potential risks aloud while they drive.
In practice, commentary driving might sound something like, “I’m approaching a four-way stop, and applying the brake. I’m looking both ways, and I don’t see any other cars or pedestrians. I’m going to gently accelerate.”
When you think they’re ready for the highway, choose a quieter time of day and a longer on-ramp that allows plenty of time for merging. As they become more confident and skilled, you can add lane-changing or busier traffic into the equation.
The goal at the end of this is for your teenager to be a safe, conscientious driver, and part of that means being clear about the rules you expect them to follow while they’re behind the wheel. Those rules should include (but not be limited to) never texting while driving, always buckling their seatbelt before putting the car into drive, limiting the amount of passengers based on your state’s law or your own comfort level, and agreeing to the pay fine for any tickets they may receive.
To further emphasize the point, you might consider having them review and sign a safe driving contract. The Parent’s Supervised Driving Program, USAA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all have templates for you and your teenager to read through, discuss, and sign.