Teaching Your Teen to Drive

Father teaching daughter how to drive
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The very idea of helping your children learn how to drive strikes fear into the hearts of many parents. Worries about putting a teen behind the wheel of one of the family's most expensive and dangerous possessions are real and tangible.

If you are embarking on the process of teaching your first teen to drive, or if you are trying for a first "successful" experience, then there are some things you should know about teaching your child to drive.

What to Know and What to Expect

As you begin the process of teaching your teen driver, you should be aware of the basic rules for success.

  • Be careful with directions. Give your teen lots of notice when you want him to do something. For example, rather than saying "Turn left now," try anticipating and say, "We will be turning left in the next block." Also, only use the word "right" for a direction. When your teen does something well, say he did it "correctly."
  • Be constantly aware. One of the hardest things about safe driving is being aware of your surroundings. That 360-degree awareness is not a skill that teens have yet mastered. You will need to be the one who watches on all four sides of the car.
  • Correct by asking questions. Rather than saying things like, "You're going to get a speeding ticket if you don't slow down," try a question-asking approach such as "What's the speed limit here?" Ask questions to teach your teen to be aware of the surroundings.
  • Let your teen take the initiative. Teens may be ready to drive as soon as they meet the age requirement, or they might not yet be mature enough or want the responsibility until they're older. Once you feel your child is ready, express that feeling and then wait for your teen to approach you. Don't push the issue—an overly anxious teen driver can be a dangerous thing.
  • Plan ahead. When you start working behind the wheel, know ahead of time where you are going and what you are going to do. Let your teen know the area in which he will be driving and what skills you will be working on.
  • Remember you are the coach. Your role as a driver's parent is to coach your teen through the basics of driving. Avoid talking down to your teen or getting upset. Try not to generalize with comments like "You're too distracted." Be specific in what you want her to do. Praise good performance.
  • Set a good example. Follow good driving practices when you drive with your teen as a passenger. If you try to beat the yellow light or make abrupt lane changes, so will your teen.
  • Start off in daylight and good weather. As your teen is developing their driving skills, try to focus on daytime driving and when road conditions are good.
  • Start slow and build up. When you start out with your teen, go to an empty parking lot and spend a lot of time starting, stopping, and turning. When the teen is comfortable there, move on to a quiet residential area with fewer cars. The next move is onto streets with heavier traffic.

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.

Essential Skills Teen Drivers Need Most

Here is a checklist of what you and a driver's education professional will need to emphasize during your teen's process of learning to drive.

The Vehicle Itself

  • Checking fluids
  • Cleaning the car
  • Dashboard warning lights
  • Fueling up
  • Mirrors
  • Seat belts and airbags
  • Tire inflation and inspection

Basic Operations

  • Avoiding distractions
  • Backing up
  • Braking
  • Controlling the car
  • Safe turns
  • Shifting gears
  • Signaling to other drivers

Interactions With Others

  • Dealing with intersections
  • Defensive driving skills
  • Maintaining safe driving distances
  • Making lane changes
  • Three-point turns
  • U-turns

Parking

  • 90-degree parking
  • Angle parking
  • Parallel parking

Advanced Skills

  • Driving in snow and/or wet conditions
  • Freeway driving
  • Night driving
  • Towing

Emergency Response

  • Changing a flat tire
  • Downed power lines nearby
  • High wind driving
  • In case of an accident

The 5 Stages of Learning to Drive

The following five stages of driver's education will help you figure out how to best help your teen develop good driving skills.

Stage 1: Learning About Your Vehicle

This stage involves a general orientation about how the vehicle works and what the driver needs to know about the car. Assign reading the manual as well as hands-on demonstrations. At the end of the stage, your teen should know how to:

  • Change a flat tire
  • Fasten seat belts
  • Fuel the vehicle, check the oil, and inflate the tires
  • React appropriately in case of an accident
  • Start and stop the engine
  • Turn on and off headlights and parking (or running) lights
  • Turn on and off and to adjust windshield wipers
  • Understand what the various lights on the dashboard mean

In each stage, your teen should be proficient at the skills being taught before moving on to the next stage. Each stage will likely take several behind-the-wheel experiences for your teen. Don't try to move too fast.

Stage 2: The Basic Skills

In this stage, the teen driver needs to learn how to maneuver the vehicle and make it do what the driver wants. Most of these skills can be learned in an empty parking lot. At the end of this stage, your teen should be able to:

  • Back the car safely and straight
  • Make safe turns, both left and right, including signaling
  • Shift gears if using a manual transmission
  • Show awareness of his or her surroundings
  • Stop the car smoothly

Stage 3: Interacting With Other Drivers and Distractions

In this stage, your teen will be learning how to operate a vehicle safely with other drivers, parked cars, pedestrians, etc. in their environment. Most of these skills will require beginning on a residential street until comfortable and confident, then moving to a multilane street later during the stage.

At the end of this stage, your teen should be able to:

  • Drive courteously
  • Maintain a "safe cushion" around the vehicle when in traffic
  • Make a smooth and safe lane change
  • Navigate safely through an intersection, including those with signals, four-way stops, two-way stops, and uncontrolled intersections
  • Operate within posted speed limits and obeying traffic signs
  • Safely cross railroad tracks
  • Use mirrors and check blind spots

Stage 4: Parking and Other Turns

Driving is one thing, but parking can be quite another. There are probably more teen accidents associated with getting in and out of parking spots than from any other cause. Once again, an empty parking lot and a residential street are good places to learn this skill set.

At the end of this stage, your teen should be able to:

  • Make a safe three-point turn
  • Make a safe U-turn
  • Park safely on a hill—facing uphill and facing downhill
  • Safely parallel park
  • Safely pull into and out of a 90-degree parking space
  • Safely pull into and out of a diagonal parking space

Stage 5: Advanced Skills

The skills in this stage are essential, but they are advanced and rely on proficiency in other skills learned in the first four stages. Don't try to start on Stage 5 until you feel comfortable that your teen has the other skills well under control. At the end of stage 5, your teen should be able to:

  • Drive safely at night
  • Drive safely in ice, snow, and wet weather
  • Drive safely on the freeway, including merging, lane changes, and maintaining safe distances from other vehicles

Teaching Responsibility in Driving

Throughout teaching your teen to drive, discuss the responsibilities your child is assuming when she gets behind the wheel.

  • Car maintenance: If something sounds wrong, a warning light is on, or any problem develops, it should be checked and reported to you or taken to a repair garage.
  • Distracted driving: Whether or not the laws of your state are strict on texting or using the cell phone while driving, discuss this with your teen and set a good example yourself.
  • Financial responsibility: Have your teen assume some of the financial costs of driving, such as filling the tank, getting an oil change, or paying a share of the car insurance.
  • Following the laws: The rules of the road aren't just book learning for the driver's test, they should be understood and followed consistently. There may also be restrictions on learner's permits for the time of day, passengers, and whether accompanied by an adult.
  • Passenger safety: A driver is responsible for ensuring passengers are wearing seat belts and aren't risking injury (such as sticking their heads, arms, or legs out of the window or sunroof). Discuss what to do if passengers are fooling around and being distracting.
  • Pedestrian safety: Teach your teen the importance of using slow speeds in residential areas and school zones and of being aware of pedestrians who will be crossing the street.
  • Responsibility for other drivers: Not only should your teen drive courteously, teach what to do to report an accident, or give assistance to others who are in an accident.

A Word From Verywell

Teaching your teen to drive is a harrowing experience for some parents. But if you take the time to prepare, work on building skill by skill, and patiently work with your teenager, you can make a huge difference in your teen's driving, now and in the future.

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Article Sources
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