Teaching your teenager to drive should make you concerned: you’re putting your own flesh and blood in control of probably the family’s second most valuable possession (after the house), in scenarios that are fraught with danger. Unless you’ve been trained as a driving instructor, you’ve not learned even how to begin to develop driving skills in your child.
So, it’s a high-stakes situation: it could all go well, or it could go very, very badly and remove all the confidence in driving that your teenager has. Of course, every new driver approaches driving with a different level of confidence. Kids who have played plenty of driving games, owned a pedal cart, ridden a bike, been go-karting or have experience racing are going to get into a vehicle with more of an appreciation of vehicle dynamics and road rules than someone that’s done none of those things. That’s not to say that a late entrant to vehicles can’t become a great driver, but that person might be lacking in confidence to start with.
There are some basic rules which will establish a path to success when teaching a teen to drive.
Before you start
- Wait until your teen is ready. There’s no point in pushing them into driving if they don’t want to
- Refresh yourself on the road rules. You don’t want to look like an idiot in front of your teen who will be fresh in their knowledge of the road rules after passing their Ls.
- Check that you qualify to supervise them. You must have had a full car licence for at least two years.
- Set a good example while you are driving. Your teen will adopt your habits first. Make sure you’re not driving with one arm hanging out the window, forgetting to indicate, running red lights, speeding and other bad habits. If you are prone to road rage and shouting at other motorists, you’re not the ideal role model for your teen.
- Set some rules and objectives. How frequently can you commit to practicing? What’s the expected date of the next driving test? Are there any requirements for your teen in order to keep access to the car?
Your communication with your teen is the thing that’s likely to cause tension and anguish in the car. You’ll have to take a deep breath and be patient with them, but here are tips to help it go more smoothly.
- Make a plan for where you are driving on your practice route. Is there a specific objective about this lesson, e.g. hill starts. Your teen needs to know this.
- Give directions consistently and well in advance. Driving can be a sensory overload for a new driver, so give plenty of warning about the next manoeuvre. For example, “at the lights up ahead, we’ll turn right.” Try to not use the word ‘right’ in the car other than to describe turning right.
- Correct poor quality driving by drawing attention with a question. For example, if your teen is tailgating, rather than saying “You’re tailgating”, say “What’s the general rule for how far you should be from the vehicle in front?” They might not have noticed they are too close, but by making them count, it will bring their attention back to it.
- Praise good performance. You’re their coach, so don’t talk down to your teen. If they do something wrong, it won’t be deliberate, just correct the action and move on. You may need to stop the car to talk about the actions taken.
- The first lesson can be at home and it’s about the vehicle. It’s important that any new driver knows how to check the vehicle and how it operates. The basic checks are the fluid and fuel level, tyre pressures, mirror and seat position, dashboard warning lights, seatbelts and airbags, and overall cleanliness. Once they are familiar with this, turn the ignition on and have them run through how to turn the indicators and lights on and off, what the pedals do, how to set the air conditioning and
- Start the first driving lesson in a safe place at a slow speed. Busy roads are daunting. An empty car park in good weather is an ideal place. Spend enough time to ensure that your teen knows how to brake safely to a stop, start smoothly and drive around a figure-of-8. Progress onto a quiet residential area with quiet traffic and then keep building over time until it’s rush hour on a rainy afternoon.
- Practice times. Your first few practices should be limited to around 20 minutes. This is enough to fatigue a new driver due to the concentration required. As their skills build, lengthen the practice time. Vary the times of day that you practice, including adding in some dusk and nighttime driving once they are more confident.
- Focus on the basics first. Every driver should be able to control the car by braking and accelerating, making safe turns, changing gear (if it’s a manual vehicle), signalling to other drivers, reversing and avoid distractions. You can practice these in a car park or on quiet roads.
- Understand how to interact with other drivers. Being predictable when on the road is a welcome trait for other drivers. If they can see and anticipate what you’ll do, they’ll adjust their driving accordingly and everyone will stay safe. Therefore, your teen needs to know how to signal when approaching an intersection or changing lanes, how to give way to other road users, how to change lanes, what safe distances to leave around the vehicle when driving and how to do manoeuvres in the road such as three-point turns and u-turns.
- Understand low-speed maneouvring. Parking and tight manoeuvring is a skill best practiced once a driver has some confidence driving on the road as they’ll be better placed to judge the position of the car. You can show them how to do bay parking (90-degrees to the road), reverse and forward angle park and parallel parking.
- Build it up to the advanced skills. Wet and gloomy weather is a challenge for any driver (panel beaters rub their hands in glee when the weather is bad because vehicle accidents increase dramatically). Motorway driving, mountain driving, night driving and towing round out the experience.
Teens often don’t think about consequences when driving, so it’s good to have some frank discussions with them about:
- Legal responsibility. What could happen to them if they drive outside the law or injure someone.
- Passenger safety. Who are they allowed to carry, what are the restrictions, and make sure they are wearing seat belts.
- Financial responsibility. The implications of having an accident (with or without insurance). The likelihood of bigger issues happening with the car if smaller issues aren’t fixed. How much will the car cost on a monthly basis taking into account fuel, maintenance, and other expenses?
- Cellphones. Not using a phone while driving is hard for teens.
What can you do?
While you’re going to be able to give your teen valuable experience behind the wheel, they will get enormous benefit from also having lessons with a driving instructor. Driving instructors know exactly what bad habits examiners are looking for, so will be able to fine-tune their driving before a test.